Muddled Middle East

When revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt erupted earlier this year quickly forced out long-time autocratic rulers, many in the West hoped that the pro-democracy demonstrations there would unleash a tidal wave of change across the Arab world. To an extent, those hopes were borne out. In the months since the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya and Syria demanding democratic reforms and an end to dictatorship.

Yet so far, none of those countries has emerged with anything like a stable democratic system. On the contrary, the upheaval in the Arab world is shaping up as a complex, unpredictable and possibly protracted conflict whose ultimate outcome may not be known for years. And unlike the precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union that marked the end of the Cold War, the transformation of the Arab Middle East appears to be proceeding by fits and starts, with events in each country unfolding at a different pace.

This has vastly complicated the question of what role the United States can play in the region that balances both its democratic values and its interest in maintaining stability in a volatile part of the world. The administration must encourage allies like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan to institute reasonable reforms aimed at satisfying their citizens' aspirations for greater economic opportunity and political freedoms. But it must also be mindful of the dangers that too rapid change could pose to friendly governments whose cooperation we will continue depend on for years to come.

Meanwhile, the war in Libya is grinding on with no obvious end in sight, despite NATO's intervention with air strikes aimed at protecting the civilian population from forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gadhafi. The NATO strikes have prevented Mr. Gadhafi from crushing the uprising in the eastern part of the country, but they have not enabled the undisciplined and poorly armed rebels to capture more territory or advance on the capital. All signs now point to a protracted civil war that leaves the rebels in control in the east while Mr. Gadhafi clings to power in his western stronghold of Tripoli.

In Syria, one of the most repressive states in the region, the government is promising reforms even as a series of increasingly brutal crackdowns continues. The bravery and persistence of the pro-democracy demonstrators suggest the country has reached a tipping point that eventually will lead to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Baath Party government. But it is likely to be a long and bloody struggle costing many innocent lives. Moreover, there's no guarantee that Iran, Syria's main ally in the region, wouldn't try to step in if it looked like Assad was about to fall — just as Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain recently to quell pro-democracy demonstrations there. Any Iranian intervention in Syria would be an explosive development that almost certainly would spark a strong military response from neighboring Israel.

For its part, Israel is more muddled than ever, with the Palestinians appearing increasingly ready to unilaterally declare statehood and seek recognition from the United Nations. As usual, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is digging in his heels against any talks that might actually lead to a negotiated settlement — a position he apparently hopes Republican lawmakers who have invited him to address the House of Representatives next month will endorse.

Since there's virtually no chance that any peace proposal Mr. Netanyahu puts on the table for Republicans will be acceptable to the Palestinians, the Obama administration should stick to the blueprint it already has: A territorial division based on Israel's pre-1967 borders, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, a shared capital in Jerusalem and provisions for Israel's security needs. The broad outlines of such an agreement haven't changed since 1979, when former President Jimmy Carter brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat together at Camp David. It is still the only real alternative Palestinians and Israelis have to a future of perpetual war and conflict.

But the prospects for that approach, like every other strategy we might choose throughout the region, look iffy at best. As frustrating as it is to watch the Obama administration's wait-and-see approach as democracy protesters clash with dictators and the Israelis and Palestinians drift farther from peace, staying largely on the sidelines may be the only option we have.