Rahm Emanuel famously quipped that a crisis should never go to waste. In his absence, the Administration seems determined not to take sufficient advantage of the ongoing and huge crisis in the Arab world. Its hesitant, uncertain, and (to date) completely ineffectual response to events in Libya sadly make this all too clear.

The administration has good reason to be cautious of foreign military adventures, especially in the Arab/Muslim world. American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever its alleged goals and necessities, united many Arabs and Muslims against us. American reluctance to criticize Israel, even within the context of absolute existential support for it, has had a similar effect. But in Libya, with both Arab leaders and the general populace united in wishing and end to Colonel Qaddhafi’s regime, we have, whatever our motives, seemingly enabled his survival and emblazoned our impotence for the whole world to see and ponder.

Unilateral American action, even with NATO support, would have been problematic in the extreme. Given the American track record, it would have aroused immense suspicion, and certainly opposition from various quarters. But with the Arab League calling for outside action, i.e., a no-fly zone, against a fellow Arab ruler – something that in most cases would be out of the question – the situation has drastically changed. A transparent, strictly limited, multilateral action, including planes from Arab countries (even if primarily for symbolic purposes), with no American intervention on the ground, would have shown the Arab and Muslim world we are living up to our oft-proclaimed ideals.

Of course, UN action would have been preferable. But, as has been obvious from the outset, the opposition of Russia and China makes that proposition a nonstarter. However, the independent and surprising action by the Arab League, plus the less tangible but apparently very strong support in the Arab world, gives sufficient support for the US to proceed.

Secretary Gates’ cautionary words must, of course, be taken seriously. But even for those not expert in military matters, they were clearly overdrawn. A no-fly zone strictly limited to rebel-held areas would eliminate most of Libya’s vast expanse from the zone. Likewise, the fear of missile defenses would be small to non-existent if allied planes operated only where rebels already have ground control. Thus, an attack on Libya’s anti-aircraft defenses, a specter raised by Secretary Gates, would not be needed.

Administration spokesmen have emphasized the lack of a “vital American interest” in Libya as a reason not to intervene. In fact, that cuts precisely in the other direction, and largely ignores the real issue. First, we can make it absolutely clear that we are not attempting to influence who will control Libya’s next government so long as it is ABQ (anyone but Qaddhafi). Second, there is an extremely vital American interest in restoring Arab and Muslim confidence in the US as a country that (at least sometimes) stands up for its ideals and is (for once) on the “Arab side.”

American policy makers do not seem to understand (or operate as if they don’t) the contradictory feelings in the Muslim (and especially Arab) worlds regarding our country. Despite their serial disappointments with the US, we still represent a force that is in some inchoate ways strongly related to democracy and freedom, something that is simply irrelevant to many other countries. No Arab (or anyone else) believes Russia or China, for example, will ever operate out of idealism. (This is why these countries’ Security Council obstruction will not hurt them among Arabs; no one expected anything more.) But for those who are not already absolutely ideologically committed to opposition towards anything American, an unambiguous gesture that “does the right thing” will have a powerful effect. That is the real “American interest.”

It may already be too late. The Administration may already have squandered this crisis. However, we must understand that doing nothing will win us nothing. But for the US to be seen as simply wringing its hands will dismay our friends and embolden our enemies.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, notably in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, where we do have clear, tangible, and conventional interests, American policy must balance real issues of not opposing important allies. In this case, if Qaddhafi wins, we will get no credit. Qaddhafi will (correctly) see us as a superpower which is clearly his enemy but is unwilling to stand up to him. Given his instability, he may demonstrate his own anger at us in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways, using his still considerable resources.

As a superpower with a tarnished but still somewhat idealistic image, the US is of course in a unique position. Twice bitten and forever shy does not constitute a successful policy path for America.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.