The self-immolation and death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 led to the sharpest change in the politics of the Middle East since the 1960s. The events of the past year in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya have cemented a radical new reality that Obama will have to contend with in his second term.
For all the talk of a US strategic "pivot" to Asia, a dramatically changed Middle East looks set to suck up a huge portion of American diplomatic energy and attention in the coming years. Old, comfortable patterns of dealing with regional dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have been severely disrupted. Islamists, long feared by the US, have since won power in free elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and are among those fighting the secular regime in Syria.
In Syria, the civil war has claimed more than 40,000 lives, and there are threats to US interests in both the demise of Bashar al-Assad's regime there, if it comes, and in his survival. As this year draws to a close, the US has edged closer to full-fledged support for elements of the uprising against Mr. Assad even as it labeled one of the opposition's most effective fighting groups, the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra, a foreign terrorist organization.
The denouement there, when it comes, could well have destabilizing ripples for neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles are a reality that can't be ignored, and the prospect of those weapons falling into the hands of jihadi groups has the Obama administration drawing up contingency plans for possible intervention.