Tom Friedman has the best analysis I've yet read of what's going on in the Middle East. He's protected from a general readership by his bosses, so I'll paraphrase his argument. It's no accident that extreme violence is occurring in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq right now. Why? They're the three Arab countries with democracies, and the Islamist factions in their elected governments, having seized a sliver of power through the ballot-box, are now using it to radicalize the Arab "street", foment sectarian violence (in some cases to create the chaos that helps Islamo-fascists seize dictatorial power), and to polarize the region still further. Other democratic factions have to cope with the terror these various militias and terror groups - the Mahdi army, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others - unleash. It's tough. And Arab culture is far more accustomed to stand-offs, fatwas and street warfare than compromise, dialogue and parliamentary accountability.

Does this invalidate the attempt to bring democracy there? I'd say not. What's the alternative? To prop up autocrats that repress those forces and intensify Islamist ressentiment? Or to give it space to breathe and encourage other Arabs to control it by democratic institutions? The problem, of course, is timing. How do you keep the democratic governments on life-support, while they are being murdered and attacked and revealed as unable to maintain order, as in Baghdad? I'd argue that it's in Israel's long-term interest to refrain from polarizing the region more than necessary for its self-defense, and in the West's interest to provide as much guidance, support and help for the fledgling, moderate democratic governments involved (and that, of course, excludes Hamas).

In Iraq, the key, if we are not to despair, is obviously the capacity of the Iraqi national army to fight back against sectarian mayhem and establish the authority that only imposing order can achieve. The U.S. forces can help with this - and we are criminally negligent for allowing the violence to spiral out of control. In a few places, we're succeeding. But the key is not just more U.S. troops - though we need many more - but the embedding of the best U.S. commanders with Iraqi units in an ambitious and sustained attempt to train the forces of democracy and moderation to fight back. Right now, I'm told that these jobs are not in favor, that they do not bring prestige within military culture, that our best soldiers are not devoted to that critical effort. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this judgment independently - but I have been told it by multiple credible sources. If we are not to surrender to forces that will not stop at destroying their own region, we have no choice but to engage with greater levels of commitment and guidance.

Democracy is being strangled in its cradle. We are the midwife. It's time to get serious.

(Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty.)