By Jeb Sharp
The change has been swift and dramatic and the Obama Administration has had to roll with the times. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says there's no question priorities are changing.
"The Obama Administration came into office wanting to work on the Israeli Palestinian peace process and engaging with Iran to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power," said Dunne.
"Those are still important issues but they've been a bit moved off to the side. So this issue the Obama Administration did not want to take on the issue of internal politics and human rights in these countries now has been forced onto the US agenda."
The irony of course is that freedom in the Middle East was supposed to be President George W. Bush's agenda, and one that President Obama took pains to distance himself from. But no longer, according to Dunne.
"I don't sense that the Obama Administration is reacting to Bush anymore," said Dunne. "They've been in office, they own their own agenda they're moving forward with it. I do think he's predisposed to view what's happening at least in Tunisia and Egypt in a positive light."
No new doctrine
But there's no clear, new doctrine emerging yet. And it's not a given that the United States will side with the protestors in all cases. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, sees President Obama as torn between ideals and strategic interests.
"I think he identifies with these young people and would like to see them do well and like to see them succeed," said Haykel. "But he is also being told by more established rulers, especially the ones who have oil, he's being told if you pursue this path then you will destabilize this entire region and all hell will break loose and the United States will suffer as a result of it."
Haykel would like to see more emphasis on strategic interests and more consistency. Instead he sees a scattershot approach.
"Choosing sides with those who want to topple Gaddafi, not knowing what to do in Yemen and sticking with what we know in Bahrain, is really no policy at all," said Haykel. "Sometimes it doesn't make sense."
It may not make sense for a while. But Bruce Jentleson, who has just finished a stint as senior advisor at the State Department, says a couple of things are coming clear: these events reinforce, once again, the centrality of the Middle East to US foreign policy. And they have made old ways of doing business obsolete.
"Some of the old deals that the United States tried to stand by, you know, he may be a bad guy but he's our guy and we would give a higher priority to some of the security cooperation over political and economic reform; that's not a bargain that will serve American interests anymore," said Jentleson. "It's not even saying values are more important; it's not going to work anymore as a general calculation."
Cold War impulse
What's more says Jentleson, the old Cold War impulse to divide the world starkly into us and them, friend and foe, needs to be checked, especially when it comes to political Islam.
"We have to be able to differentiate between different forms of political Islam," said Jentleson. "Those that are extreme and are fundamentally threatening to our interests, our values, and our allies, like al Qaeda and some others, and those that are here to stay, are part of the political constellation and that we really have to find ways to work with if we really committed to processes in these countries that allow them to shape their own future."
All of this will require a fundamental strategic rethink says Jentleson. Gone – or at least waning – are the days of presidents for life and absolute monarchies in the Middle East. Michele Dunne says dealing with a new array of political actors will require doing diplomacy differently.
"In a more modern way, in a way I think we do it in most of the rest of the world where it's not a question of sitting down in a smoke-filled room and cutting a deal with one guy," said Dunne. "That sort of way of doing diplomacy I think is gradually passing away in the Middle East as it has already in most other places."
Whatever form the diplomacy takes, it's hard to imagine the days ahead won't be defining ones for President Obama's foreign policy.