'In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Arab autocrats in a remarkable speech in Qatar last week.
The Arab landscape all around her provided ample confirmation. In Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a despot who has been in power for nearly a quarter-century, was reeling. His people had conquered their fear and had taken to the streets. In Cairo, the Pharoah the Pax Americana has indulged through five American presidencies appeared to be losing his touch, his once-tolerant country engulfed by sectarian troubles between Muslims and Copts. Lebanon, which had once been a showcase of American success in the region, was once again in the throes of a political crisis.
But there was a truth that our secretary of state glided over. Sinking into the sand, too, is the worldview that informed President Obama's approach to the Middle East.
Mr. Obama had come into office with a belief that he knew and understood the Islamic world. He was proud that Islam was a strand in his identity. He was sure that the policy of his predecessor had antagonized Islam. President George W. Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" was not given the grace of a decent burial. "Ideology is so yesterday," Secretary Clinton proudly proclaimed in early 2009. Realpolitik was to be the order of the day.
The Bush diplomacy had declared an open ideological assault against the Iranian theocracy. Mr. Obama would offer that regime an olive branch and a promise of engagement. Syria had been pushed out of Lebanon and viewed as a renegade regime that had done its best to frustrate the American war in Iraq. The Obama diplomacy would offer the rulers in Damascus diplomatic rehabilitation.
Thus the word went forth to the despots in the region that the American campaign on behalf of liberty that Mr. Bush had launched in 2003 had been called off. A new Iraqi democracy, midwifed by American power, was fighting for its life. The Obama administration would keep Iraq at arm's length.
This break of faith with democracy was put on cruel display in the summer of 2009, when the Iranians rose in revolt against their rulers. True, American diplomacy was not likely to alter the raw balance of power between the regime and its democratic oppositionists. But the timidity of American power, and the refusal of the Obama administration to embrace the cause of the opposition, must be reckoned one of American foreign policy's great moral embarrassments.
No one called on the president to dispatch the Marines to Tehran, but the deference of the pre-eminent liberal power to men who had unleashed the vigilantes on their own people was at once a moral and a strategic failure. An American president who prided himself on his oratory could not find the language that would express the age-old American belief that our country is invested, morally and strategically, in the spread and triumph of liberty.
Mr. Obama had said he was willing to deal with the theocracy and regimes like it so long as they were willing to "unclench their fist." Instead, a more heartless dictatorship had taken hold. The theocrats had no interest in granting Mr. Obama concessions. They were sure that they could hold their ground, and that America was bound to capitulate. Iran's rulers took Mr. Obama's measure: The opposition at home could be broken, and the drive for hegemony in the region, and for nuclear weapons, could be pursued without running appreciable risks.
No wonder the Hezbollah movement has shown such defiance in recent days. Iran's proxies in Lebanon brought down that country's coalition government as Prime Minister Saad Hariri sat down for a meeting with Mr. Obama.
Now that sort of gamesmanship is, by Hezbollah's standards, a sin of minor proportions. Hezbollah's leaders had struck in anticipation of an indictment of its members by an international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But an undeniable truth hovers over Lebanon: the ebb of American power. Five or six years ago, the Lebanese rebellion against Damascus had been emboldened by American power and protection. The "Cedar Revolution" that brought about the withdrawal of Syrian troops was both Lebanese and a child of the American presence and prestige in that country.
But the Syrians had been eager to retrieve what they had given up under duress. The solicitude shown Damascus by the Obama administration convinced the Lebanese that a different wind now blew in Washington, and that they and their country were being given up in a Syrian-American accommodation. In the best of worlds, it is difficult for the Lebanese, divided among themselves as they have been throughout their modern history, to hold their own against Syria. But their abandonment by the U.S. was a devastating blow to those among them who wished for their country a political order of peace and normalcy.
The power of the region's autocracies has given rise to a belief that there is an "Arab-Islamic exceptionalism" to the appeal of liberty. In its years of ascendancy, the Bush diplomacy had battled against the "soft bigotry of low expectations." It was a supreme irony that Barack Obama, who had spoken of a great opening onto the Islamic world, had returned American policy to its older acceptance of the "differentness" of the Arabs, to the inevitability of tyranny in their midst.
It took the embattled Muslim liberals a while to catch on to the moral indifference of the Obama administration. But catch on they did, and in their unequal struggle with the tyrannies in their midst they have operated on the reasonable assumption that the leading liberal power in the world order had no interest in the promotion of their liberty.
Tunisia came as a bolt out of the blue, and Arab rulers and oppositionists alike now watch and wonder whether this is the first domino to fall, or a case apart. In Tunisia, the proposition will be tested as to whether the Arabs can break out of that dreadful choice between the autocrats in the saddle and the radical Islamists in the shadows. "Our president and king must be go," read a Tunisian posting on an electronic daily. The grammar was flawed, the sentiment easy to make out.
For a fleeting moment in Qatar, George W. Bush seemed to make a furtive return to the diplomatic arena. He was there, reincarnated in the person of Hillary Clinton, bearing that quintessential American message that our country cannot be indifferent to the internal arrangements of foreign lands. The Arab world presents a great strategic and moral challenge. These are states with a broken compact between rulers and ruled. The rulers produce the very terror and rage they propose to hold back. The oppositionists, meanwhile, are a great, troubling unknown.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.