Islamic Tunisian protesters run away as police officers fire tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd gathered in front of the U.S. embassy in Tunis, as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)
Last week's killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, followed by the sudden outburst of violence in Tunisia and the forced evacuation of Americans working at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, reflected a sudden and dramatic change from the scene I saw there less than three months ago.
In June, I spent nearly a week in Tunisia, both in the capital city and in the Sahara region to the south.
While not exactly a peaceful place, it appeared to be prospering, more than a year after the so-called Arab Spring of uprisings took root there, leading to the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And similar revolts swept through Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Construction was brisk in Tunis, fueled by petro-dollars and U.S. assistance to the new government there.
Traveling to Carthage, to the island of Djerba, to the desert oasis called Ksar Ghilane, I encountered a lot of curious looks in the coffeehouses, in the marketplaces, or souks, but no open hostility toward American visitors.
Last week's unrest and assault on the American embassy by protesters laid to rest for me the fiction that the country's revolution had led to a stable environment. It appeared that anti-American sentiment had simply gone underground before this.
What happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere throughout the region has revived interest here at home in foreign policy as it relates to the presidential election. That's not something we've heard much of this year, with the economy dominating the landscape.
The trouble in North Africa and the Middle East is raising fresh questions about who is better equipped to deal with tricky issues on the world stage. A recent CNN poll gives Barack Obama the edge on that issue.
Will foreign policy and questions of national security determine the outcome? Unlikely. But it means a new lens through which voters will watch the coming debates and the campaigning in these closing weeks of election season.