First, they will need leaders willing and able to think and act in truly national terms, transcending their narrow sectarian, corporatist, family, and religious affiliations. Name one leader in any Arab country that fits that description.
Second, Arab states need inclusive and legitimate institutions that aren't hostage to political intrigue or playthings of the elites that compete for power. Their primary objective should be representing the nation's citizens -- not the perpetuation of their own perquisites and those of the ruling elite.
And third, the Arab world needs a mechanism for negotiating differences and accommodating polarization without it spilling into the streets. As the recent riots in Egypt and the killing of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid show, the alternative to this is violence and murder.
Forget the "it will take time" argument. It's right, of course -- but it's also the answer for just about everything in the Middle East these days.
What I don't see anywhere are the trend lines heading in a positive direction. And forget about the establishment of democracies, or liberal, secular societies. Right now, we're going back to basics: What the Arab world needs most of all right now are stable polities that can provide basic security and some material improvement in the lives of their people. Oh, and basic security for foreigners who happen to be working or travelling there too. Indeed, the issue isn't transformation at all, but basic transaction -- how to run a railroad.
As for the United States, we're stuck in the middle of this mess. And we're not helping much. Our policies on Israel, democratic reform, and counterterrorism are perceived at times as contradictory and hypocritical, and they're not going to change all that much -- guaranteeing that we will remain unpopular with millions of Arab and Muslims.
We can still do business in the Middle East, though, because Arab elites still require things we have. The kings and emirs need our security guarantee against Iran, the Yemenis need our economic aid and counterterrorism assistance, the Egyptians need our military aid and support with the IMF, the Jordanians need our political backing, and the Palestinians still need the hope -- however misplaced -- that we can deliver a state for them.
America's room for maneuver in the Middle East is shrinking. The authoritarians have gone -- and good riddance. The democrats haven't yet arrived -- and won't for a good while. And with the end of that old order and the beginning of the new, perhaps we can finally cast off the illusion that the United States can somehow fix all of this. We cannot and will not save the Arabs from us or themselves.
But that's not new. Here's what is: As the Arab state grows ever more dysfunctional, it may just be that the Arabs can't save themselves either, nor transform the world in which they live.