Until now, Washington has reacted timidly to the extraordinary events convulsing the Middle East. The United States has behaved as a nervous bystander, afraid to make the wrong move, not as a self-assured country with much at stake — morally, strategically and economically — in the outcome of the pro-democracy uprisings.
It is not too late for President Obama to display innovative and courageous leadership in a process that will continue for months and years. This country has an important role to play in the move from dictatorship to democracy. This does not mean launching a military invasion. Washington has other tools, and it needs to use them to help ensure a positive outcome to this historic moment.
Washington faced a profound dilemma when protesters demanded the resignation of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. He had proved to be a loyal ally. On the other hand, the protesters demanded freedom and democracy, America's founding principles. For U.S. leaders, the choice was either betraying a friend (and sending a troubling message to other allies) or betraying its own democratic ideals. In the face of that dilemma, Obama chose not to take sides for as long as he could, calling only on Egyptian authorities to refrain from violence. You could almost see the president's hand, checking to see which way the wind blew. America clearly wanted to stand with the winning side.
Admittedly, the decision seemed wrenching. But there was another way: Instead of viewing it as a lose-lose situation, Washington could have used strong links, ideological or personal, to each side. Before Mubarak fell, humiliated by his people and ultimately by the United States, he had already agreed to stand down in just a few months, and to keep his son out of power. The gap between his offer and the protesters' demands was narrow. Washington could have tried to bring them together and negotiate a more dignified and coordinated exit. There was no guarantee of success. But if it worked, this could have allowed for a better lead-up to elections, and a better chance that liberal democracy will emerge.
When Libyans rose against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, there was no dilemma for Washington. Gadhafi had a track record of outrageous actions. Still, Washington spoke only timidly for too many days. It took Gadhafi slaughtering his own people for Washington's tone to finally change.
Even in 2009, when Iranians protested a stolen election, the United States seemed to fear standing up for democracy.
Despite what some of his critics say, Obama appears to have a natural aversion to strong or controversial positions. It leaves the impression that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can barely restrain an urge to speak out more forcefully and rally the world.
At this hinge of history, the United States cannot afford to act as a bystander. A new era is beginning in the most crucial region of the world. And this country, still the most powerful on Earth, has a responsibility to do its part in shaping the future. The United States must work for democracy, human rights, peace and, yes, a stable global oil supply.
Other countries have already jumped into the fray. Clinton told Congress that Iranians "are doing everything they can to influence the outcomes." Even Venezuela's Hugo Chavez introduced a mediation proposal for Libya.
The people of the Middle East will soon rewrite the rules that will guide their future. They will change their laws and elect new governments. Most of them have little, if any, experience with democracy. That makes their political systems vulnerable. But the revolutions come from an ideology that is all but made in the USA. That's an opening for Washington to help.
In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S.-made Marshall Plan turned into a hugely successful effort to build liberal democracies in Europe. Americans helped bring prosperity, peace and strong alliances.
Given the political realities at home, Washington will not start a new massive aid program. But it can play a major role in helping the Arab people build democratic institutions and political parties. It must do it carefully, without tarnishing the credibility of those who embrace the ideas America supports.
As for those still struggling to bring down dictators, Washington must speak strongly and lead, not follow, the international response. It has started taking more credible steps in Libya. In other countries, it might help mediate the introduction of reforms.
This is a time for American leadership.