As the upheavals that have made 2011 a historic year in the Arab world look to stretch into 2012, a few regional trends are coming into clearer focus: The Arab world is going to be more democratic, more Islamist, and more volatile than ever.
The challenge for the United States is how to navigate this new regional environment. There is no shortage of advice about how the United States should be handling the changes. Almost every pundit calls for Washington to do more -- talk more, threaten more, spend more, advise more. Foreign Policy contributor Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy is representative of this trend. In his "America's Second Chance and the Arab Spring," after appropriately humble bows to the idea that reform should "grow from within, rather than be imposed from without," Pollack then calls for Washington to "articulate a vision of change … that lays out a path forward that they [the Arab governments] could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first." How to persuade them? Pollack lays out an activist blueprint for Washington to use aid, diplomacy, the bully pulpit, and pressure on allies and enemies to follow his reform path.
I do not disagree with Pollack's contention that "the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America's vital national interests." But just because something is important to the United States does not necessarily mean that the United States can affect it. In fact, the record of the last decade indicates that the more resources the United States pours into a country (see: Iraq) in an effort to make it a stable, pro-American democracy, the further away that goal recedes.
Rather than approach this fluid moment by jumping in with both feet, Washington would be better advised to take the sage advice that the White Rabbit gave Alice in Disney's 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland: "Don't just do something, stand there." Although American interests are at stake in the Middle East, there is no immediate threat to any vital national concern. We can count on the structure of the regional system to thwart efforts by any regional power, Iran or some other state, to play a hegemonic role. America can afford to wait and see how the democratic and Islamist wave plays itself out. Self-restraint is not a typical American virtue, particularly when it comes to telling other people how to organize their own politics. But given America's track record in the Middle East, it is called for now.