Each president of the United States enters office thinking he will be able to define the agenda and set the course of America’s relations with the rest of the world. And, almost invariably, each confronts crises that are thrust upon him—wars, revolutions, genocides, and deadly confrontations. Neither Woodrow Wilson nor FDR imagined having to plunge America into world war. Truman had to act quickly, and with little preparation, to confront the menace of Soviet expansion at war’s end. JFK, for all his readiness to “bear any burden” in the struggle for freedom, did not expect his struggle to contain Soviet imperial ambitions would come so close to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Nixon was tested by a surprise war in the Middle East. Carter’s presidency was consumed by the Shah’s unraveling and the Iranian revolution. George H.W. Bush rose to the challenge of communism’s collapse and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Clinton squandered the opportunity to stop a genocide in Rwanda and waited tragically too long before stopping one in Bosnia. George W. Bush mobilized the country to strike back after September 11, but, in the view of many, he put most of his chips in the wrong war.
In the eye of the historical storm, and in the absence of a challenge as immediate and overpowering as September 11, Pearl Harbor, or the Nazis’ march across Europe, it is risky to identify any set of world events as game-changing. Yet that is what many analysts, including myself, believe the Arab revolutions of 2011 are. And a surprising number of specialists—including hard-eyed realists like Fareed Zakaria—have seized upon the crisis in Libya as a defining moment not just for the United States in the region but for the foreign policy presidency of Barack Obama as well.