Case in point: the apparent revolution in Egypt. Most Americans would like to see the emergence of a democratic government that respects human rights and nurtures a growing economy. But how to get there?
Barack Obama, so brimming with confidence when he took office, has stumbled around trying to find the right response. Gone was the self-assurance of the man who seemed confident he could win the hearts and minds of Muslims in his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
To the first peaceful demonstrations in Cairo, he was almost as stonily indifferent as he was to those in Tehran in June 2009. Almost a week later, in a less than surefooted televised statement, he said change must occur "now." The next day, pro-regime thugs started beating up protesters in Tahrir Square.
Now he finds himself burdened with the responsibility to try to shape Egypt's form of government for the future. The United States clearly has an interest in preventing the emergence of an Islamist government in a nation of 80 million people in the heart of the Middle East.
We have an interest in having Egypt continue to maintain at least the current cold peace with Israel. We have an interest in an Egypt that will be an ally in important causes, as Hosni Mubarak's regime was in the Gulf War, or at least an untroublesome observer, as in the struggle in Iraq.
In fairness, it's not at all clear what we can do to assure such an outcome. The scholar Walter Russell Mead notes that American presidents have been faced numerous times with revolutions -- the fall of Louis XVI of France and the czar of Russia, the takeovers by the Chinese communists and Fidel Castro, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran -- and have never managed to come out ahead.
"In all of these cases, the United States failed to find an effective policy response to the revolution, and each time the foreign revolution created thorny political problems for the sitting president," he writes. "President Obama will do well if he can avoid being blamed by everyone involved for all the ways in which the new situation in Egypt falls inevitably short of their hopes."
It is tempting to look back and try to identify mistakes made by Obama and his predecessors that helped create the current dilemma. Obama could have pressured Mubarak harder to make concessions to his people and to gracefully retire.