Regardless of who gets to enjoy the White House movie theater for the next four years, the first film Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ought to watch is Wolfgang Petersen's 2000 disaster classic, "The Perfect Storm."
Like the doomed, intrepid crew of the Andrea Gail in author Sebastian Junger's tale of the powerful 1991 Nor'easter, the United States is caught up in its own perfect storm in a Middle East it can neither fix nor flee.
The looming crisis with Iran, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria's implosion would be trouble enough. But an Obama or Romney administration will also face an Arab world at sea.
It would be wrong to predict the worst from the Arab revolutions. Newly empowered Islamists and nationalists will need the West for many things, causing them to moderate their more revolutionary goals --- for now. Hope and progress will mix uneasily with violence and political and economic dysfunction. Donald Rumsfeld was right: Democratization -- if that's what's actually in train -- is indeed a messy process.
What distinguishes this particular storm, however, is its chronic and durable character. If the storm hit, broke hard, and passed that would be one thing. But unlike Junger's meteorological event, this political storm will ebb and flow for some time to come.
I can already hear the critics in the background: This is all too dismal, democratization takes time, there's been real progress -- in Egypt, for example, where the country's first civilian government shares power with the military. My fellow FP columnist, Marc Lynch, wrote a terrific piece analyzing why the recent outburst of Muslim rage isn't nearly as significant as annoyingly negative worriers believe.
I concede much of that. And it would be wrong to be guided too much by our fears - just as we were guided too much by our hopes in the initial bloom of the Arab Spring. Nor can we rush to judgment or evaluate political change in this region by our own history and standards. After all, even in the case of the United States, it took a century and a half, including a bloody civil war, to reconcile the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution. And of course, we're still far from perfect when it comes to attitudes about racial equality.
What's important is not the end state. We hardly know what that will be. The relevant question is: Are the trend lines running in the right direction? Unfortunately, they may not be.
When the Arab Spring initially broke in late 2010, few could have predicted its character, arc or direction. Whatever hopes there were for easy transitions, inclusive institutions, enlightened leaders, and stable democracies were quickly overtaken by harsher realities.
Secular forces quickly lost their pride of place to Islamists of various strains, particularly in Egypt. These groups were much more determined, cohesive and better organized. Military elites also jockeyed and competed to preserve their power. The repressive powers of the state in places like Syria, Bahrain, and tribal rivalries in Yemen and Libya asserted themselves even while historic elections, transitional leaderships, and new parliaments held out some hope for positive change. And throughout these historic events, the United States figured only marginally in the narratives, grievances and tropes of those Arabs in the streets seeking to own and control their own destiny.
In a dramatic turnaround, America seems to be front and center (again) in the Arab story. Three forces have come together -- like a perfect storm -- to threaten the promise of the Arab Spring. And these elements reinforce one another, creating a downward spiral that will be hard to break.