Paul Greenberg

Remember our president's speech in Cairo at the bright onset of his tenure, the speech that was going to change everything? But the Middle East being the Middle East, and Barack Obama being Barack Obama, it changed nothing.

Yet some things can change in that part of the world -- with the speed of wildfire. See events this year from, west to east, Tunisia to Syria. This administration is still trying to catch up with that whirlwind, aka the Arab Spring, and it still sounds way behind.

We've seen this movie before. Recall all the ballyhoo that accompanied the new president's appearance in Cairo on June 4, 2009, which now seems so long ago. That speech was going to be a Breakthrough, a New Departure, a Historic Outreach to that part of the world. Which is how Thursday's presidential address was billed, too. And it's likely to have about as much effect.

If there is a single phrase to sum up this administration's policy in the Middle East, it would be Too Little, Too Late. Way too little and way too late. It's taken this president almost half a year to endorse the Arab Spring in his own, always carefully qualified way. (Only this week did Washington impose travel restrictions on Syria's dictator for his accustomed brutalities.)

It all fits into a disappointing pattern. Our president's first official venture into the shifting sands and ephemeral winds of the Middle East could scarcely be described as a rousing success. That "breakthrough" speech consisted largely of apologies for the West's being the West while he extended an open hand to all the autocracies -- i.e., Islamic countries -- in the region. We can all see how well that worked.

Yet there was much to be learned from the new president's initial appearance in that troubled region even if he didn't learn it. For instance, there was that telling moment, the significance of which may not have been fully recognized at the time, when he almost apologized for introducing what he called a "controversial" subject: democracy and the need for it in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt.

Mr. Obama needn't have hesitated, as it turned out. His university audience broke into applause when he spoke of democracy. But its significance was lost on this stranger in a strange land. Our still new president seemed surprised, even nonplussed at the enthusiastic response to his throwaway line. But then he recovered and went on as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn't just accidentally bumped into the future.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.