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The lazy days of August were overshadowed by the latest round of speculation on whether Israel will attack Iran — an ongoing guessing game that has produced ponderous studies on the pros and cons of an attack.

There are good reasons for so much fretting. Israel, after all, may have its planes on the runway, ready to attack Iran's nuclear weapons programme. Israel's attack may trigger a broader regional conflagration. And this conflagration may cause serious damage to Western interests. 

Yet the coming regional war is just as likely to erupt elsewhere and have little or nothing to do with Iran. Its impact on Western interests would be just as profound as the worst-case scenario of an Israeli strike against Iran suggests. This war, unthinkable until January 25, 2011, when Egyptian protesters began to converge on Cairo's Tahrir Square, is becoming likelier by the day.

Say what you wish of the ousted autocrats of the Middle East — or those, like Bashar al-Assad, who are still clinging on to power — but the pretexts they paraded before their Western interlocutors to justify their iron grip on power were not preposterous. They would always point in the direction of their internal enemies and ask what it would mean for the region if they lost power and be replaced by the only alternative — the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The cruelty of these dictatorial regimes was lamentable, but over time we and they had acquiesced in a regional order, which gave us all in the West the false comfort of stability and appeared to suit our vital interests quite well.

By blindly believing that this was the case, Western leaders contributed to what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Had the West genuinely supported liberal Arab dissidents and pushed authoritarian dynasties in the direction of gradual reforms a decade ago, the current regional picture might not be so bleak.

There was a brief moment when an American president thought he could change all this. George W. Bush, shaken by al-Qaeda's ferocious assault on America, spoke of the need to change what the scholar Fouad Ajami called the "Arab Predicament" — the terrible choice between the stability of dictators and the anarchy of Islamic radicalism. 

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