Washington's reaction to the growing unrest will have almost no impact on what actually happens in the Arab world, which will be determined by domestic factors - the protesters' determination, the governments' response, the willingness of police and army units to use force against demonstrators. Protesters, who view the United States as the historical prop for Arab authoritarian regimes, will not heed Washington's calls to avoid violence. And regimes that have been authoritarian for decades will not suddenly see the wisdom of liberalization because of statements from Washington.

But what the United States says affects its standing in the region. The Obama administration's attempt to strike a balance between not offending incumbent regimes and refurbishing its image by sending a message that Washington wants reforms is failing - messages are circulating on the Internet to the effect that the United States is once again supporting authoritarianism. Washington must get off the fence and choose whether it wants to support democracy, and thus be on the side of Arab publics enraged by decades of repression, or whether it wants to continue supporting regimes that have been repressive for decades in the name of ill-defined strategic interests. It cannot do both. The United States' long-term interests would be best served by supporting unequivocally the messy process of democratic change.