GORDON ROBISON Americas political and media elite have short attention spans. Thus, it should be no surprise that only days after hailing the popular uprising that ousted Tunisias President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the establishment in Washington has moved on. Its political class is notoriously bad at multitasking. So with Tunisia offering little prospect of an immediate solution, attention quickly shifted to other matters, leaving only those who are professionally concerned with the Middle Eastern affairs to give Tunisia much thought. Actually, this may be a good thing. As events unfold over the coming weeks and months, it is probably better if members of Congress, pundits who know little about the region and others given to judgments that are as strongly held as they are quickly arrived at turn their attention elsewhere. The Middle East has long presented a unique challenge to US diplomats and policymakers. It is not the only part of the world where Americas professed ideals conflict with its strategic interests, but it is the place where that contrast is often most stark. There is no need to recap here Washingtons long history of talking about democracy in the Middle East, while supporting the regions autocrats. Lets just say that the Bush administrations experience in this regard ought to be instructive. Six years ago, President Bush, in his second inaugural address, gave a ringing endorsement of democracy and good governance. He reminded Americans that policy is most effective when it is an extension of national values, and warned dictators that they could not count on Washingtons backing merely because stability is familiar and change can be scary. The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands, he had said. We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.Americas belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. One may scoff at the idea that everyone else in the world wants freedom, prosperity and democracy as America defines them. That belief, however, is widely held among ordinary Americans, and Bushs words resonated even with many people who had not voted for him. Of course, when push came to shove that was not the way the Bush administration acted. Not in Palestine. Not in Iraq. Not in Egypt; and most certainly not in Tunisia. Bush fell victim to a nave - but also very American - belief that left to their own devices foreigners will elect the sort of governments Americans want them to elect. When, inevitably, that did not happen he and the people around him seemed almost personally affronted and reverted to the simple and familiar: Jettisoning idealism in favour of real-world power politics. The still-fresh memory of this was one reason why many Arab activists and commentators reacted warily to Obamas 2009 Cairo Speech. Like Bush in 2005, Obama said the right things, but what had history offered that would make any prudent Arab activist believe an American President when he promised to stand up for democracy and human rights? Tunisia now presents Obama with an opportunity to show that he really is a different sort of leader and that, unlike Bush, he is willing to put the long-term interests of the people ahead of the short-term interests of their governments. The question is, will he take that chance, knowing well that the short-term results may not be to his, or his allies liking? In short, does Americas current President have the courage of his convictions? Thus, the decision facing Obama is momentous. It carries great risks, but offers even greater potential rewards in terms of both Americas standing in the Middle East, and for the cause of freedom - one most Americans like to believe their country represents Gulf News