The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted a radical rethinking inside the administration of President George W. Bush about the purposes of American foreign policy -- above all in the Middle East. "Realism died on 9/11," as an administration official said to me several years later. Changing the insides of states had become a matter of national security no less urgent than affecting their external behavior. Bush, previously a hardheaded realist, became an ardent proponent of democracy promotion.
But the problem -- or at least the biggest problem -- was that while the terrorist attacks had changed the United States, they hadn't changed the place where the United States hoped to act. Terrorism had made democratic reform more urgent without making it a whit more likely. Autocratic leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere regarded the president's new preoccupation as a mere irritant.
Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, it's that world, not the United States, that's changing. The Tunisian people have taken to the streets and ousted a tyrant, just as the people in the Philippines, Chile, Romania, and Georgia once did. And that spectacle has inspired young people and activists across the region. The Tunisian drama may end badly, of course: Protests elsewhere may simmer down, and in any case the conditions that produced this one revolutionary upheaval may turn out to be sui generis. But Arab regimes are shakier today, and their critics more emboldened, than they were before. And Barack Obama, like Bush before him, must adapt to a Middle East different from the one he inherited.
A region that has felt paralyzed by autocratic rule is now in motion. Leaders are backpedaling: The emir of Kuwait abruptly announced that he would distribute $4 billion in cash and free food to citizens. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt issued a call for investment in Arab youth. You can almost smell the fear in the likes of Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, who informed the country's official press agency that "the talk about the spread of what happened in Tunisia to other countries is nonsense."
Egypt, where the increasingly frail and profoundly unpopular Mubarak, age 82, seems prepared to run for president once again this year, looks especially vulnerable. At least three desperate protesters there have set themselves on fire in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the uprising in Tunisia. The bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year's Day, which killed 21, has exposed frightening new divisions in the country. And Egyptian leaders are angrily pushing back against outside criticism. Aboul Gheit called on a group of Arab foreign ministers meeting in the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh this week to adopt a resolution telling the West: "Do not dare interfere in our affairs."
Aboul Gheit was reacting not only to criticism following the New Year's Day bombing, but to a speech his American counterpart, Hillary Clinton, had just delivered in Doha on January 13, warning that people in many parts of the Arab world "have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and imploring states to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law and the inclusion of civil society. One way of framing the choices facing Obama: Should he now be more willing, or less, to risk infuriating autocratic allies through public criticism?
Until now, U.S. officials, above all Clinton, have almost always chosen circumspection. And they've had at least a plausible rationale: Bush took a different approach and failed. In 2005, both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly criticized Mubarak's regime and demanded that it hold free and fair elections. Mubarak first gave ground, and then cracked down on the opposition; the White House, fearful of offending a key ally and worried about the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, held its tongue. Obama discarded Bush's crusading moralism in favor of "engagement," which dictated a more respectful stance toward regimes.