As the great Arab Spring breaks apart a frozen and sclerotic Arab world, America is having a tough time finding its way. Get used to it. It's the new normal. Navigating in a world of rising democrats and falling dictators will be painful and messy. And the new Middle East will only widen the contradictions between America's interests, values, and policies.
As the Arabs see it, Washington has long disappointed in matters of war
and peace. And now is no exception. America's Arab autocratic friends worry it's
too tough on them and no longer a reliable ally; Arab democrats lament that America
is not tough enough, nor more supportive of them. You eased a good friend (Hosni
Mubarak) out of power, say the Saudis (and Israelis); you're not hard enough on
the Bahrainis, Yemenis, or Libyans, say others. At best, America is seen as
marginal to recent events; at worst a weak friend and weaker foe.
The knock against American policy is both unfair and misplaced. It assumes a degree of control over these events and a coherence in U.S. policy that never really existed.
On the contrary, Barack Obama's administration has played a pretty bad hand pretty well. Sure the president has been playing catch-up -- probably talking too much on Egypt and not enough about Libya. But imagine the challenge: how to identify with reformist democratic movements trying to change regimes where America still has friends and interests.
That's really mission impossible, and different from previous challenges. In the past, America did literally help turn the world at critical moments: in postwar Europe with the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO; in the 1970s with détente with Russia and opening to China; in the late 1980s with a smart response to a collapsing Soviet Union. American policy was active and dynamic with a sense of direction and strategy.