Dorothy had it right. We're not in Kansas anymore. In little more than a year, a powerful tsunami of rebellion and revolt has washed away much of what was familiar to America in a region it thought it had finally come to understand.
But for the United States, life in this new Middle Eastern Oz differs from Dorothy's tale in one fundamental respect: It's bereft of wizards and witches.
Many of the big and not-so-big men who held America in thrall and their own people hostage are now gone or going. Indeed, none of the larger-than-life leaders who dominated Arab politics for nearly half a century still strut the Arab stage.
Their passing carries enormous consequences for Arabs -- and for Americans, too. The real danger is not that the United States will confront Arab strongmen, but that it will confront regimes without truly democratic institutions or strong, responsible leaders.
Once upon a time, two kinds of Arab leaders held sway. The first type were the acquiescent authoritarians, those presidents and kings on whom America depended to help protect its interests. They were constant, if not always agreeable, companions. Egypt's Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, Tunisia's Ben Ali, Yemen's Ali Saleh, Morocco's King Hassan II, Saudi Arabia's kings Fahd and Abdullah. The PLO's Yasir Arafat rounded out the group photo.
America's arrangements with the acquiescents (and their sons, relatives, and successors) weren't pretty, but they were clear: In exchange for their cooperation in matters of war, peace, oil, and security, the United States supported them and looked past their prodigal ways, human rights abuses, authoritarian behavior, and faux reforms.
Then there were the adversarial authoritarians. Here, a smaller group photo featured Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Syria's Assads (father and son), and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. America sought to check and constrain their power, even removing one through invasion. But at times, the United States found common ground with them too. (See: cooperation with Saddam against the Iranian mullahs, and dancing with Assad on the peace process.) As pure and unadulterated dictators, however, they were incorrigible, beyond reform and redemption.
From Washington's vantage point, the Arab world wasn't so much divided into countries as it was broken down into personalities. Each of Americas' authoritarians had a role to play and a dramatic persona to accompany it. There was the good King Hussein, the wily but indispensable Arafat, the enigmatic yet much-courted Assad, the cruel Saddam, the crazy (like a fox) Qaddafi, and the plodding but reliable Mubarak.
The United States built its policies on these men and their regimes without much regard to broader political and social forces within their societies. At best, parliaments, parties, trade unions, and public opinion were of interest to regional specialists, academics, and human rights advocates, but not terribly relevant to presidents and secretaries of state. We did pay attention to the Islamists, but only because we feared them.