There is no need (and not nearly enough space) to recap here Washington's long history of talking about democracy in the Middle East while supporting the region's autocrats. Let's just say that the Bush administration's experience in this regard ought to be instructive.
Six years ago this month president George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address, gave a ringing endorsement of democracy and good governance. He reminded Americans that policy is most effective when it is an extension of national values, and warned dictators that they could not count on Washington's backing merely because stability is familiar and change can be scary.
Liberty and rights
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he had said. "We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.
"America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed."
One may scoff at the idea that everyone else in the world wants freedom, prosperity and democracy as America defines them. That belief, however, is widely held among ordinary Americans, and Bush's words resonated even with many people who had not voted for him.Of course, when push came to shove that was not the way the Bush administration acted. Not in Palestine. Not in Iraq. Not in Egypt; and most certainly not in Tunisia.
Bush fell victim to a naïve — but also very American — belief that left to their own devices foreigners will elect the sort of governments Americans want them to elect.
When, inevitably, that did not happen he and the people around him seemed almost personally affronted and reverted to the simple and familiar: jettisoning idealism in favour of real-world power politics.
The still-fresh memory of this was one reason why many Arab activists and commentators reacted warily to Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. Like Bush in 2005, Obama said the right things, but what had history offered that would make any prudent Arab activist believe an American president when he promised to stand up for democracy and human rights?
Tunisia now presents Obama with an opportunity to show that he really is a different sort of leader and that, unlike Bush, he is willing to put the long-term interests of Arab people ahead of the short-term interests of Arab governments. The question is, will he take that chance, knowing full well that the short-term results may not be to his, or his allies', liking? In short, does America's current president, unlike his predecessor, have the courage of his convictions?
Bush had admirable instincts when it came to democratisation. His good intentions, however, were undone by inept implementation, an unwillingness to accept that free elections might not put his preferred candidates into power and, above all, by his inability to see that America's conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan affected its credibility as a bearer of democratic values everywhere else.
That is why establishment Washington's short attention span may, ultimately, be good for the cause of democracy in Tunisia.
The decision facing Obama is momentous. It carries great risks, but offers even greater potential rewards in terms of both America's standing in the Middle East, and for the cause of freedom — one most Americans like to believe their country represents. The further removed that decision is from the media's glare and partisan grandstanding, the better the chances are that Obama, and America, will do the right thing.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He teaches Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont and has taught Islamic history at Emerson College.