Let's start with Libya, where Obama hesitated for weeks to intervene, but has now agreed to a U.N.-backed no-fly zone that aims to stop Col. Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people.
In deciding how to act, Obama was haunted by the legacy of the Iraq war. That ill-conceived conflict and failed occupation turned the entire Middle East, including democrats, against U.S. interventions. Egyptian rebel leaders made that point to me over and over. Imposing democracy from above, à la Iraq, is out.
So unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya was out of the question. Moreover, the Pentagon strongly opposed intervention in another Muslim country. U.S. generals feared it would take ground forces to get rid of Gadhafi.
Only after the Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone March 12 (and called for United Nations support) could the White House press for a vote by the U.N. Security Council. The vote meant - in theory, at least - that Arab countries could provide cover for action by France and Britain, with the United States in a supporting role. Even so, had Gadhafi not been on the verge of committing large-scale atrocities against civilians in full view of the world, Obama might not have concurred.
However, the Libya story is but a tragic sideshow. The fate of the region will turn on the results of democratic experiments in Egypt and events in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
The Obama-ites were slow to support Egyptian rebels, but that may have been a godsend. Much of Egypt's newfound pride lies with the fact that its rebels made their revolution on their own.
Now is the moment when U.S. officials should back democratic Egyptians (and Tunisians) in their push for fair elections and an open constitutional process. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who just visited both countries, seems to get it. But in their eagerness to avoid interference in Egypt's politics, U.S. officials may be taking an approach that's too hands-off.
The president's ambivalence has also stemmed, however, from the fact that we have sharply conflicting interests in the region.
In theory, we back political reform in the Middle East, in the hope that Arab states can build democratic institutions in the long run. If they succeed, terrorists may find less fertile ground in the region.
Yet in the short run, the United States still faces crucial security threats from Iran and from Islamist terrorists. Our autocratic Arab allies helped us fight these threats. Their demise is likely to create instability in coming months or years that will enable those threats to increase.
This conflict underlay the slow support for change in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak's intelligence service was aggressive in pursuit of Islamist terrorists, and he was a key Sunni ally in containing Shiite Tehran. In the new Egypt (and Tunisia, and Libya, if Gadhafi falls), intelligence services will be curbed. This is a good thing, as the secret police repressed their own people. But it will also make it easier for terrorist networks to regroup in the region.
At least in Egypt, the White House can still rely on a close relationship with the army, which will remain a power center for the foreseeable future. In the Arabian Peninsula and the gulf, however, the democracy-vs.-security conflict makes it almost impossible to shape a coherent policy.
Gulf rulers like Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah want Obama to forget about democracy and focus on security. Such a choice seemed possible in the last decade: George W. Bush promoted Mideast democracy in his first term; then, when that backfired, he emphasized Mideast security in his second term. But that choice is not possible now.
The administration has tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage the president of Yemen to usher in peaceful democratic change. Neither ruler nor rebels seem able to make the necessary compromises, which means U.S. officials probably can't save Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet if he falls, this country, just below Saudi Arabia, may relapse into tribal warfare. This would make it easier for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to flourish.
In Bahrain, the revolt of a largely Shiite population against its Sunni rulers presents the greatest danger to U.S. interests. This island kingdom is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, whose eastern oil region is dominated by its Shiite minority. The Saudis fear that if Bahrain's rulers fall, Iran will have the perfect base from which to push Saudi Shiites to rebel.
Last week, over Obama's objections, the Saudi monarch sent troops across the causeway to help crush Bahrain's rebels. He won't listen when U.S. officials urge him (and Bahrain's ruler) to give more representation to their Shiites. Obama's team says this will head off trouble; Abdullah believes it will create more.
The Saudis think Obama is too strong on democracy and weak on security. Obama's critics slam him for being too weak on democracy - or on security. Few realize he is caught in a historical bind that requires him to be strong on both, even though the two contradict each other - at least in the short term. Bush couldn't resolve that contradiction; Obama has no choice but to try.
Trudy Rubin can be reached at email@example.com.