If the Obama administration decides to tacitly or overtly side with the protesters and Ben Ali’s regime falls, will these Washington voices for Arab democracy applaud the change or will they attack Obama for selling out a secular ally? ~Marc Lynch

Lynch says this is a genuine question, but he must know the answer to this. It is a perfect “heads I win, tails you lose” situation for administration critics. If the administration remains publicly neutral and calls for an end to violence, they will attack Obama for his passivity and silence, as they did during his correct handling of the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election. If the administration openly sides with Ben Ali’s opponents and calls for his resignation, administration critics will condemn Obama for undermining U.S. allies, destabilizing North Africa, and creating an opening for the Islamists that Ben Ali has effectively suppressed. If the administration defends the Tunisian government and tries to calm the situation down behind the scenes, the critics will berate Obama for his indifference to the suffering of the people and his lack of belief in American principles, and so on.

Since Obama will probably get no credit from his democratist critics no matter what he does, he and his administration should continue their public neutrality, use what influence they and the French have with Ben Ali to urge him to continue de-escalating the conflict, and insist publicly that any transition of power should be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion. Emphasize that the U.S. and France will not recognize any government that comes to power through the violent overthrow of the regime. The administration could build on Ben Ali’s offer not to stand for re-election to propose that the transition take place after the next election. In that way, the administration might be able to contribute to easing Ben Ali out of power that stands a chance of avoiding chaos, immediate revolution or a military coup.