Most Americans would have a hard time locating Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, or even Libya on a map. Such ignorance is becoming less excusable, because what is now happening across the Middle East is likely to have dramatic political and economic consequences for the United States.

The toppling of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt after mass demonstrations for democratic reform is being called the second great Arab revolution, the first being the revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Miraculously, both the protests and the response of governments were largely peaceful, at least initially. No one expected that to last. Libya, which spans a good portion of northern Africa between Egypt and Tunisia, has been ruled by the ruthless and unhinged Muammar Qaddafi for forty­-one years. Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Qaddafi responded to the popular revolt by plunging his nation into a fierce and bloody civil war. And while support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt cut across religious and class divisions, traditional clan allegiances are shaping the fighting in Libya. Qaddafi has threatened a blood­bath, rallying his core supporters and bringing in mercenaries from sub­-Saharan Africa. Massacres of rebels and civilians have been reported in Qaddafi strongholds such as Tripoli. At the same time, a significant number of army officers and troops have defected to the rebels. Many in Libya’s diplomatic service, including its ambassador to the United States, have also sided with the insurgents. Still, the outcome in Libya is uncertain, and the Middle East’s remaining strongmen are watching closely.

What should the United States and the international community do? Together with other heads of state, President Barack Obama has called for Qaddafi to relinquish power and end the fighting. The UN has imposed sanctions as well as an arms embargo and frozen Qaddafi’s financial assets. U.S. warships are now stationed off the Libyan coast to assist in any humanitarian emergency, and possibly to intervene to prevent the mass slaughter of civilians. There is talk of establishing a no­-fly zone in order to deprive Qaddafi of the use of his air force. All options remain on the table, ac­cording to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For the time being, however, those opposing Qaddafi have insisted that the involvement of Western troops would only strengthen the dictator’s hand.

The prospect of the United States becoming directly in­ volved in yet another war in the Middle East should give great pause to all concerned. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan have reminded us of the limits of American power and influence. So, in a more positive way, have the popular uprisings now tak­ing place across the region. Talk about the United States “democratizing” the Middle East rings hollow as long as we remain deeply entangled with nondemocratic governments such as those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, it is simply a historical reality that the United States’ ties to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are longstanding and complex. Such alliances cannot be unilaterally dissolved by Washington overnight. In short, for democratic change to come to the oppressed peoples of the Arab world, it must come from within. The United States can encourage and assist that change, but it cannot bring it about. This is the carefully calibrated message Obama is sending protesters, a message that has earned the scorn of liberal interventionists and champions of realpolitik alike. History may prove that Obama was too cautious. Still, a policy that antagonizes both the Saudis and the current Israeli government, as well as Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, might have something to recommend it.

There’s real risk in encouraging revolution in countries that supply the world with oil. These democratic movements may fail; and if they do, conditions will worsen for their proponents. If they succeed, the new governments will in all likelihood be more antagonistic toward Israel, at least as long as the Palestinians remain stateless. Islamist political parties will also be given a voice and possibly real political influence. Still, there is little evidence that the current uprisings are driven by radical religious ambitions. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, the demand of the demonstrators is not for sharia law but for representative government and an end to cronyism and economic stagnation. Homegrown democracy may yet prove the best antidote to Islamic terrorism. It may also be the best hope for extracting the United States from conflicts it has done a great deal to create but whose resolution lies beyond its reach.

Related: Democratic Awakening?, by William Pfaff
Gandhi on the Nile, by David Cortright
The Will of the People, by the Editors

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Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: View Contents
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