Events in Egypt are forcing the US to choose between the status quo in the Middle East or spreading genuine democratic practices.
The US must choose principles or Cold-War habits
Far from the streets of Cairo, publicists, academics and policymakers in the United States are disagreeing over what comes next for Egypt, or should. Most revealing is the disparity of views on the political right, which has dominated the American debate on Middle Eastern democracy since the September 11 attacks.
For example, a former official in the George W Bush administration, Elliott Abrams, has found himself proffering advice to the White House alongside someone from a very different political persuasion, namely the George Washington University professor Marc Lynch. Both favour the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. "Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections," Mr Abrams wrote almost lyrically last week in The Washington Post. "The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment."
The Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami, who was close to the Bush team, might agree. As Mr Ajami observed in The Wall Street Journal: "Reigns like Mr Mubarak's devour the green and the dry, as a favored Arab expression has it. The sycophants come to the fore and steal what they can."
On the other side, alliances have taken shape between political realists and individuals further to the right, whose yardstick for foreign policy achievement is whether American power is enhanced. Richard Haass, another former Bush administration official, believes President Barack Obama's ambiguity toward Mr Mubarak has sent the message that Washington is an unreliable ally. The commentator Lee Smith, on most issues closer to Mr Abrams, is equally mistrustful of events in Cairo. For him, Mr Mubarak is laudable for having defended a peace treaty with Israel that "has not only been good for the United States, securing our hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also of course for Israel".
Meanwhile in Egypt, demonstrators seem blithely unaware of the conversations in Washington and New York. They remain undaunted by the gradualists, who argue that in certain societies democracy needs time to evolve. As for those advocating rapid change, the Egyptians would respond that they don't require anyone's permission.
The Egyptian uprising represents a foundational moment for the United States in the Middle East. Either Washington can rejuvenate its role by advancing greater pluralism, the alternation of leaders and governments and genuine democratic practise - even if this means allowing more room for regional dynamics to play themselves out, whatever the impact on the United States. Or it can continue defending the authoritarian status quo and suffer the consequences of being regarded by most Arabs as the patron of their oppressors, until the remarkably shoddy edifice collapses on America's head.
During the Cold War, the United States saw advantages in propping up an alliance system with regimes repressing their people. The main enemy was the Soviet Union, friendly autocrats could be trusted to bring their societies into line with American aims without significant dissent, and in those days states were more apt to look the other way on domestic abuses by other states. The fight against communist tyranny globally justified American tolerance of despots locally.
At the end of the Cold War, the United States changed little. Where it had once hesitated to upset Arab allies by pushing for political openness, for fear that they might reconsider relations with Moscow, Washington now was anxious about political Islam. There was also the fact that in 1991 a Middle East peace process began in Madrid. Everything was subordinated to that hopeful enterprise. So, Mr Mubarak was allowed to eradicate a domestic Islamist insurgency; Syria was allowed to pursue the debasement of its own society and consolidate its grip on Lebanon; Yasser Arafat was returned to the West Bank and Gaza, with no one saying much when he established an authoritarian kleptocracy there. Nor, with the Soviet Union gone, was there any serious challenge to American paramountcy.
America's unpopularity, always high in the Middle East, was compounded by the natural antipathy directed against the powerful. There was hypocrisy involved, a tendency to blame all ills on Washington when Arab societies had themselves cut their leaders so much slack. It wasn't very different than the hypocrisy of successive American administrations speaking in the vernacular of freedom, without ever trying to spread the good word to Arabs. When Mr Bush removed the most ferocious of autocrats in Iraq, and justified this (disingenuously or not) in the name of liberty, he was universally rebuked. Only when he returned to the default American position of collaborating with dictatorships, did Mr Bush's critics ease off.
That moment may be over. What will happen in Egypt is anyone's guess. Often societies, particularly a multifaceted one like Egyptian society, find their equilibrium. But has the United States found its own? What does it stand for in the Middle East? Freedom? Reality suggests otherwise. Peace? What peace can long rest on a foundation of perpetual war against the basic rights of Arab citizens? America must reinvent itself and assist those yearning for pluralism, or it risks becoming irrelevant to the Arabs - to be replaced by far worse.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle