05/16/2011 11:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'U.S. Do Something'

Discussing the tumultuous "Arab spring," a Sunday morning commentator argued that the North African/Middle East uprisings were a great triumph for Iran and disaster for Israel and the U.S. And, he said, the U.S. is letting it happen and "not doing a thing."

Needless to say, he did not mention the menu of options the U.S. has to work with... for the very simple reason that it doesn't exist. That is to say, unless he has in mind yet a fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh military intervention. Even the most powerful nation on earth, with far and away the most extensive military establishment, cannot dictate terms in every circumstance and certainly not in six or eight countries at a time and even more certainly not when engaged in two-and-a-half wars already.

What is it we are supposed to do, I wonder? Send diplomats, perhaps. But with whom do they negotiate? Mobs of demonstrators in huge squares? The commentators suggested we should have stood more firmly with President Mubarak in Egypt. Aside from issuing proclamations of support, how should we have done that? Send troops? Does anyone believe the Egyptian uprising was waiting for instruction from the U.S.? And the troops we have are on multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome to the 21st century, a time already characterized by the limits on American power. People are rising up against oligarchs we have supported for decades. Some want democracy. Some want religious rule. Some want their tribe or clan to rule. Are we in a position to dictate in multiple countries who should and should not govern? And even if we could, should we?

Among the many new realities of the 21st century are boundaries on what America can and cannot do. This is not an argument for isolationism or retreat. It is an argument for a realistic understanding of what we can and cannot do and should and should not do. What we should not do is violate the principles contained in our Declaration and our Constitution, the definition of who we are and who we consider ourselves to be.

The best outcome in this turbulent time is to hope that, by our example and our behavior, as many uprisings as possible will, as in Tiananmen Square some years ago, erect in their public squares some semblance of our Statue of Liberty as their symbol of what they hope to become.

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