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The Whack-a-Mole Strategy

Caught between dictators and democrats, and with problems popping up everywhere, the Obama administration is going to have to be content with playing catch up.

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.

But this isn't your grandfather's crisis. And here's why.

It's not America's story: Even the foreign-policy Energizer bunnies in the Obama administration know that the change sweeping the region is driven by internal indigenous forces. And America should rejoice in that fact, even while its capacity to shape the outcomes is drastically limited. That the reference points for these reformist movements have little to do with Washington or Jerusalem offers the best hope that the arc of change will endure and reflect the legitimacy of a popular broad-based quest for freedom, economic prosperity, and individual rights. It shouldn't surprise us in the least if these new reformers are open to U.S. economic aid but are wary of having Washington involved in funding civil society and good governance. America has for too long been seen as meddling and favoring democratic change -- so long as Washington's democrats prevail. It will be fascinating to see what the Obama administration's approach will be on engaging the Muslim Brotherhood.

Still caught in the devil's bargain: In the months ahead, it will be hard for the United States to make clear-cut choices because its interests and partners won't allow it. Coming down hard as the administration is now doing on Libya was easy. In Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, where autocratic regimes hold sway and where Washington has equities from counterterrorism to containment of Iran, America will be doing a fair measure of dancing that is likely to alienate democrats and autocrats alike. Even in Egypt, which has the best chance for a real democratic transition, the United States will have to tread carefully between a military and security establishment with which it has close ties and interests (the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, counterterrorism) and a rising reformist movement that will demand greater political and economic space and civilian oversight. America may well get caught in the middle.

Interests versus policies: In a new and more democratic Middle East, the gap between U.S. policies and interests will also grow larger. As politics open up and public and elite sentiments (whether Islamist or secular nationalist) shape government policy, America's own policies will come under greater scrutiny and criticism. From containment of Iran to Gaza, from counterterrorism to the Mideast peace process, America will be that much more on the defensive. The gaps between those policies and America's interests and values will be harder to bridge in an Arab world in which the autocrats are gone or are slipping away. America's policies, particularly toward Israel and Iran, will not change quickly, or likely change at all. But the space available to pursue them will contract.

The new Middle East will be as difficult as the old, with more uncertainty, not less. America's interests will pull in one direction; America's policies in another. And like a giant game of whack-a-mole, change will keep popping up faster than Washington can possibly keep up with. At some point, the transformational phase of this revolution will give way to a transactional one hopefully bringing with it a greater degree of stability as the hard bargaining over power sharing begins.

For now, keeping our head, while old autocrats (and friends) may be literally trying to keep theirs won't be easy. Memo to the president: Don't look for a grand strategy toward Arab reform and revolution. There isn't any. Ad hoc will have to do. But if done smartly (remaining true to a set of general principles supporting peaceful change, tailoring those to specific countries where the United States may be able to have some influence on ruling elites, acting more boldly if necessary in crisis situations like Libya, and maintaining a consistent public line), it may see you through. And if and when the dust settles, you can begin to sort through the more herculean challenge of bringing America's interests and values into line with its policies.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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