The struggle is under way to re-establish American control over the successors to those despots whom popular uprisings have ousted from Tunisia and Egypt, threatening the careers of still other abusive absolute monarchs and presidents-for-life (and their offspring).

The report that Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is to be thrown to the crocodile crowds by the American government, allowing for bids by the CIA for a successor, was “leaked” (meaning not announced at a press conference) to The New York Times. His fault, in American officials’ eyes, is not so much the killing and other violence he has deployed against citizen protestors of his rule, tolerable until now (as in the earlier cases of Presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia), as it is the failure of this violence to suppress popular uprising. These figures are not disqualified by despotism but for unsuccessful despotism.

The finding against President Saleh is that he has lost his utility as an instrument in the American war against “the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida,” which official America perceives as an important confrontation with international jihadism. Popular opinion in rightist American circles fears Shariah law’s replacement of the U.S. Constitution in American courtrooms, and the takeover of all Europe by fanatical Islamic immigrants bent on establishing a global caliphate.

The threats are the same as those proclaimed and battled by the Rev. Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., whose next project, after recently provoking the killing of more than 20 persons in Afghanistan, is to place on trial, in absentia, the Prophet Muhammad. All these are linked instances (however remotely) of an American political hysteria, exploited in a time of demagogy, such as the United States has seen before.

I am aware that great states take their clients as they find them, without running virtue checks on them before political adoption. However, events since the Tunisian uprising began allowed for thoughts that the U.S. government — or at least the present administration — might reconsider a national policy of dealing with the Arab world through interposed tyrants, who — like Saddam Hussein — from time to time, when used up, had to be replaced.

There seemed to be acknowledgement that indigenous and authentic political solutions might prove more successful and lasting than the artificial political constructions that had been forced upon Iraq and Afghanistan as replacements for homegrown military dictatorships or for the native religious radicalism that had imposed itself upon their societies. The former were often unaccommodating to American political imperatives and the latter marked by anti-Westernism and obscurantism. Islamic religious cultures outraged both fundamentalist American Protestant Christians and politically progressive Western reformers. American neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists found common ground in trying to remake Islam on globalized (and Israel-friendly) lines.

The authentic sources of revolutionary unrest were deeper than perceived in Western government offices. Obviously there was social distress, callous maldistribution of wealth and arbitrary rule through powerful security establishments. However, these are not “underdeveloped” nations. To apply that term to Lebanon or Syria, or to pre-2003 Iraq, or Iran, or to Egypt, the most ancient and sophisticated civilization of all, is preposterous.

Their political problem might be described as overdevelopment; these civilizations have seen everything.

The Arab states created out of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s were assigned artificial frontiers that often disregarded established ethnic, sectarian, historical, dynastic, and tribal interests and realities. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya are all cases of political artificiality and Western intervention to suit European colonial interests. Into this, the new and non-Arab, non-Islamic state of Israel was imposed in what was historic Palestine, ostensibly to right the atrocity of the Holocaust, a European crime for which Islamic civilization bore no responsibility whatever.

The notion that the U.S. and the European states automatically possess solutions relevant to all of this is absurd. It may be that disinterested European governments might constructively “accompany” whatever new political leadership emerges from the current and chaotic evolution in the region, but under what conditions? The advantage offered by the ex-imperial states is knowledge of the region, experience, languages and cultural attachments. Their disadvantages are that they are the ex-rulers whose abuses and crimes are unforgotten.

There are smaller advanced nations free of controversial colonial histories, able and willing to be useful. The United Nations offers disinterested government-building and nation-reconstruction assistance and resources, including the organization or furnishing of experienced senior personnel on a contract or contingency basis. The Charter itself includes a trusteeship structure of possible utility.

The worst outcome is, however, the one that seems most likely: a new American effort to manage the region through chosen political clients and favorites, in the self-deluding belief that this is “democratization” — the identical policy that has already given the region wars in or around Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the threat of war with Iran and now the Libyan intervention. One must do better.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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