Escaping Aladdin's Cave

02/02/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Washington is suffering severe heartburn over events in the Arab world. The anguished hand-wringing is almost palpable. Understandably so. For the series of setbacks that the Obama administration has experienced these past few weeks, and the dread of worse to come -- especially in Egypt, makes the future look dire for the United States -- IF we accept the existing premises as to American interests in the greater Middle East. There is quite another perspective available from which current developments look far less menacing.

Those core premises are five in number: (1) containing the threat of terrorism to the United States depends on the allegiance of regional governments to the idea that Islamic-tinged political forces by their very nature constitute a danger that is to be suppressed; (2) conditions that open the slightest possibility of those forces acquiring political influence are themselves a danger; (3) Iran is dedicated to expanding its influence everywhere by means fair or foul, that Hamas and Hezbollah are its pliant tools, that Tehran's nuclear ambitions are intolerable, therefore the mullahs' regime must be suppressed one way or another, and, certainly, serious talks that encompass the full range of security concerns on both sides are ruled out; (4) Israel is a crucial ally in the campaign to deal with the first three threats and, therefore, American interests are served by sacrificing the Palestinians to the draconian plans of the present Israeli government while we participate in the systematic brutalization of the Gazans; and (5) we somehow can reconcile our high blown rhetoric about democracy and progress in the Arab world with the embrace of its creaky, corrupt despots. Each of these is highly dubious in concept and a demonstrated recipe for serial failure in practice. Together, they create a lethal cocktail now blowing up in our face.

The intellectual and political challenge of refashioning our understanding of our interests and our place in the region obviously are formidable. We also should recognize that to do so entails a form of diplomatic engagement largely alien to our accustomed modus operandi. We habitually instruct, direct and hector. That is not diplomacy, it is imperial rule. We cannot tolerate uncertainty to the point that we have become control freaks; the unhappy experiences with Maliki, Musharraf and Kayani have just not registered. So a psychological/behavioral barrier, too, must be surmounted in order for Washington to pursue a more nuanced and more realistic strategy.

Frankly, it is hard to imagine the Obama people making this adjustment.

That point was driven home by yesterday's White House maneuvering to keep intact the current power structure, and its American oriented foreign policy, while mollifying the opposition. It provided telling confirmation of just how out of touch Washington is with current conditions. There is near unanimity among those knowledgeable about Egypt in underscoring the extreme limits of American influence on developments there. They further underscore the likely counter productive consequences of its trying to direct events. Mr. ElBaradei also has issued this warning in unmistakable terms. That advice has been ignored. The coordinated announcements by the White House and Hosni Mubarak that he pledges not to run in this fall's presidential election was met with derision by the crowds in the Cairo streets. Obama's obtuseness about revolutionary dynamics in Egypt is stunning. To tell the Egyptian youth who have animated the uprising that "we hear you" is another example of the White House's skewed vision. They are unable and unwilling to recognize that the times are changing in ways that preclude perpetuation of the coalition of forces that allowed America to control the region's politics.

The most suitable word to describe this behavior is 'fatuous.' It amounts to a vain gesture at taming the unruly tides to accommodate our desires. This is not entirely novel in our Middle East dealings over the 9/11 decade. But it does demonstrate a blindness to glaring realities that portends grave dangers ahead as the Obama people face the consequences of their strategy unraveling in the face of new, incontrovertible realities.