Our Middle East choices: autocrats, Islamists, liberals
The contest for dominance in the Middle East is a 3-way contest between autocrats, Islamists, and liberals. We want the liberals to be dominant. However, due to urgent political economic needs, we historically worked with the autocrats in power, who at least participated in the conventional nation-state system. The autocrats checked (repressed) both populist threats, Islamists and liberals, to the autocrats' dominance.
Political scientists from the 'realist' school that guided our foreign policy during the Cold War believe that liberal dominance in the Middle East is an unrealistic option. Therefore, they believe the realistic option in the Middle East is working with autocrats who will repress Islamists, even if the cost is sacrificing the liberals who are most compatible with us.
In the Arab Spring at Step One, we used the various tools of our superior power in the nation-state system to help defeat autocrats on behalf of the liberals. However, removing the autocrats' check on the liberals also removed the autocrats' check on the Islamists. The Islamists are less affected and influenced than the autocrats by our conventional power, so we need the liberals to check the Islamists at Step Two. But in the post-autocrat populist contest, the Islamists are far more powerful than the liberals. The liberals need sufficient smart assistance from the liberal West in order to have a feasible chance (note: not a guarantee) of winning dominance over the Islamists.
* 11JUL16 add: An alternative I wasn't aware about when I wrote this post in 2012 was a ME autocrat leveraging his terrorist ties with Islamists to attack the liberals, in spite of the surface enmity between the autocrat and Islamists. This is reported to be the dynamic between the Assad regime and ISIS in Syria.
The best example of sufficient smart assistance to liberals competing with Islamists in the Middle East is the Bush-era counterinsurgency "Surge" in Iraq. President Bush understood the dynamics of our 3 choices in the Middle East when he championed liberals in the Middle East with the Freedom Agenda, but President Obama dropped the Freedom Agenda and decided to implement a more 'realist' foreign policy. Obama's change in course, though popular with opponents of Bush's foreign policy, rendered the West ill-prepared to assist the liberals in Step Two of the Arab Spring.
In fact, Saddam's regime was noncompliant, threatening, rearming, tyrannical, radicalized sectarian, and terrorist. When it came time to put up or shut up on behalf of liberals in Iraq, Bush put up. If we want - need - the liberals to defeat the Islamists and achieve dominance of the Middle East, then Obama and the West need to put up in Libya and the rest of the Arab Spring.
Earlier, I asked the presidential candidates whether liberalism still defines American foreign policy. What kind of leadership do we need now from President Obama and the West? See the New York Times article on President Bush's decision for the "Surge" in Iraq.