The scenes from Libya and Bahrain tell us that the successes of protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt are spreading. People are losing their fear of repressive regimes. The more that police forces and troops fire bullets and tear gas into crowds, the bigger the anger grows and determination sets in. It looks as if it is no longer possible for some of these regimes to control the crowds using the very considerable forces they have at their disposal.
The fast changing situation makes western governments look flat footed. For many years western governments have flattered and humoured dictators for fear of worse. Sometimes they have allied with them for good reasons, because they have offered peace in the Middle East. Sometimes they have linked with them to fight other forces in the Middle East they dislike even more. The west has wanted to trade with these countries, both to buy their oil and to sell them a wide array of western goods. Western countries have been prepared to sell defence equipment as part of the package.
Western governments can argue that it is not their job to seek to topple governments of the world, however unpleasant they may seem. Or they might argue they should only seek to topple the worst, and then to do so in as orderly a fashion as possible without preferably resorting to force. Western governments should believe in democratic systems and more freedom, but also have to accept that it is beyond them to impose democracy from outside on many countries where the government does not want it.
The challenge for Obama and for European governments is to decide at what point they should drop their support for dictators under pressure from their citizens. At what point can the West decide that a dictator no longer can govern his country? Or should western governments, seeing the growing instability, seek to add to it by offering early moral support to protest movements? Are all challengers to these regimes equally worthy of support? Does support mean ending supplies to the dictators, or does it imply also offering more practical help to the protesters? When should aid and certain types of trade be cut off, if at all?
If you licence weapons sales to governments, you have to allow for the fact that they might decide to use them. You can hardly make it a condition of sale that they do not use them. There will now be regrets about some of the supplies allowed to some of these regimes. Soon there will be new agonies. Should new regimes that emerge warrant our support and should they in turn be allowed supplies of military and police equipement?