The turmoil in much of the Arab world has grown into more than a regional protest by peoples seeking to overthrow repressive regimes.

Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have spurred demonstrations from Morocco to Iran and now, tragically, conflict in Libya that increasingly looks like civil war.

The criminal acts of that country's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, demand foreign intervention.

With that comes an opportunity for the United States to restore its prestige and political leadership on the world stage.

U.S. efforts to maintain stability in this strategic region have for decades trumped more high-minded notions of democracy and freedom.

America's presence there -- whether military or civilian -- often engenders, at best, suspicion and, at worst, violence.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the instability in that country have served mainly to cement -- justifiably or not -- this hostile view of U.S. intentions.

It can come as no surprise, then, that Washington's genuine concern for the well-being of the people of Libya -- manifested in a debate on implementing a no-fly zone over that country -- initially received few kudos among Arabs.

Only now, as reports of massacres proliferate, is vehement rejection of U.S. involvement softening among some leading Arab organizations.

Equally disappointing is the lack of stronger support for U.S. action among its European allies.

Leaders of the European Union appear to be back to their bad habit of putting their heads in the sand, hoping for a United Nations resolution, and working to prevent more refugees from reaching their shores.

NATO also is hamstrung. Ahead of meetings this week in Brussels, there is no consensus within the alliance for any military move similar to the action that put a halt to genocide in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

The U.N. is also an improbable forum for real action. Russia and China, though each for its own reasons, are as suspicious of U.S. intentions as are the average Arab man and woman on the street.

European hopes for global cover are almost certain to be shattered by vetoes from Moscow and Beijing.

As a European, I still dream of a strong and united Europe that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States to demonstrate that Western democracy is more than an esoteric concept.

I long for a day when the transatlantic partners stand behind their words and put into deeds their commitment and dedication to freedom and human rights for all.

But let's face facts: The partnership looks like it works best on economic issues. So if the United States makes a move in Libya, it's likely to do so, again, essentially alone.

There are many valid reasons for the Obama administration to approach Libya warily. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States is in worldwide competition with emerging powers.

That competition transcends economic and financial strength. It's also a contest about political systems.

With the Middle East and North Africa in the throes of revolt, now is the time for a full-throated support of democracy. Some regimes have already been overthrown; others are likely to follow. The U.S. should unequivocally champion those long oppressed who now struggle to eject their oppressors. This moral clarity would go a long way toward restoring America's image.

The United States doesn't err in standing up again for the principles for which it has often fought in the past. Its desire for a broad international consensus on Libya while considering action is understandable.

But events on the ground are outpacing the ability to forge any international mandate.

Europe may be undergoing another round of dithering self-reflection on its role and influence in the world, and others may view any U.S. move with distrust and enmity.

That can't and shouldn't stop America from acting.

Annette Heuser is executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington. This article was distributed by Bloomberg News.

* * *

Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, write no more than 250 words to Include your name and the city where you live.

Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion