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.
He and his predecessors could have placed less reliance and trust in authoritarian and dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, as George W. Bush forthrightly stated in his first term as president and in his second inaugural speech. And Bush himself could have stayed truer to that vision in his last years in office.
If you want to go back far enough, you could criticize Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles for canceling U.S. aid for the high dam in Aswan, which led Mubarak's predecessor-but-one Nasser to turn to the Soviet Union for aid and an alliance.
But when you go through this exercise, you come to the conclusion that American leaders not only face difficult decisions, they often must make tragic choices. The decision to back Hosni Mubarak ensured that Egypt, the only Arab country with the demographic heft to pose an existential threat to Israel in conventional war, would remain at peace instead.
It provided us with an ally in at least some important policies for a period of 30 years -- a very long time, just about as long as the time between the outbreak of World War I and the end of World War II.
American leaders have never had the luxury of allying our country only with pristine partners. We entered World War I allied with the odious regime of czarist Russia. We won World War II only with the aid of the even more horrifying communist regime of Josef Stalin.
The time we bought with our support of Mubarak is now obviously coming to an end. Let's hope that the outcome is one we can live with at least as well.