Editor's note: Patrick C. Doherty is the director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington.
Washington (CNN) -- If there was ever a moment when President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff's advice to never let a good crisis go to waste, the tectonic change sweeping the Middle East is that moment.
Washington will not get an opportunity like this -- to upgrade America's standing among the people of the Middle East at a pivotal time -- ever again. But for the people of the Middle East to believe, words are not enough. Decisive action based on a redefined set of 21st-century national interests is essential.
The Cold War assumption that security for Israel and the world's oil required support for illiberal regimes in the Arab world could melt away, leaving a more prosperous and truly secure region in its place.
Clearly, the days when we could argue that American interests lie in supporting strongmen delivering "stability" are over. This old euphemism is precisely what the Arab street is reeling against.
While "stability" for the U.S. meant security for Israel, shipping through Suez, and assistance in the hunt for al Qaeda and its allies -- stability for the Mubarak government meant the maintenance of a regime that smothered the aspirations of its people at a time when a massive younger generation needs a host of basic economic opportunities.
If continued stability and a veneer of democracy is all that Washington asks of the emerging regional leadership, we will find doors closed and the swing voters on the Arab street turning anti-American for a generation to come.
Of course, heavy-handed interference in domestic politics is fraught with unnecessary risk. We should have learned our lesson from the failure of Washington's engineered governments of the last generation, first the Shah of Iran, then Saddam Hussein.
There is even a strong argument to be made that the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq served only to delay popular change movements in the Middle East by strengthening the hands of our illiberal partners in suppressing their internal politics. Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution recently wondered whether such upheavals, coming years earlier, could have removed Hussein without ever firing a shot.
But where to start? If we want to work in partnership with the people of the Middle East, Americans need to take a hard look at our 21st-century interests globally and then prioritize those interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
We have to start with the right big picture. The great global challenge for the United States isn't Iran, North Korea or al Qaeda; it is much more serious: the fundamental unsustainability of the global order. This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Four billion people, according to a U.N. report by a panel co-chaired by Madeleine Albright, have been largely excluded from the global economy. Under today's international system, built for the Cold War, their entry has become a destabilizing, zero-sum game. They are leaving their villages, entering the world's cities, and increasing consumption of the Earth's resources as they do.
India and China are together adding 750 million to their cities in the next 20 years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Under business as usual, the global economy would need four Earths to meet the demand for resources as people upgrade their standard of living. In fact, the revolutions in North Africa are coming at the same time that the International Monetary Fund commodity price index (excluding fuel) is at its highest level in history, higher than even before the crash in 2008, reflecting growing demand.
The flip side of economic inclusion is the challenge of ecological depletion. Under business as usual, as these young people enter the global marketplace, the ecosystem services we all rely on for the basic elements of life -- climate management, freshwater, fisheries, soil fertility and flood control -- will be further degraded. This leaves billions vulnerable to a variety of crises from hurricanes and floods to droughts, disease and failed crops. With global population set to increase by 50% in 40 years, maintaining business as usual will be fraught with serial disasters, widespread migration and resulting regional conflict.
As a result, America's long-term interests in the coming decades cannot be summarized by the word "stability." Every region, and especially the Middle East, needs to figure out how it is going to change -- how to bring large populations of young people into urban spaces and how those cities and towns will consume far fewer resources per person than they do today.
Essential to this task is the rapid extension of the rule of law. Without the majority of businesses and individuals living within a fair, law-based economy, governments have no tools to plan the massive growth or encourage sustainable behavior in the marketplace.
If those are America's overarching interests, supporting the Mubarak regime in Egypt was a tragic example of what not to do. In a recent study, researchers estimated that 92% of private property in Egypt is held outside the law. That means no mortgages, no small business expansion, no hopes, no dreams. And the problem is systemic.
For a baker to get government approval to open a business, it currently takes 549 days and more than $1,000. In a country with an annual per capita income of $2,270, being legal is impossible. Combined with the police state that kept the lid on this economic discontent, it's easy to understand why the Egyptian people are angry.
But if America's agenda in the Middle East reflected a long-term interest in sustainability, we would find an incredible pool of resources waiting to be deployed there -- $248 billion in "informal" capital, mostly private real estate, is trapped, held illegally and unable to be put to work, languishing in black and gray markets in Egypt. As a metric of frustrated dreams, there are few more powerful. Brought into a basic, legal marketplace, that liberated capital could leverage more than a trillion dollars in residential and commercial investment.
With a responsible, modern government in Cairo, that investment can rapidly improve Egyptians' quality of life while reducing their ecological footprint. America's annual support of $1.5 billion pales in comparison.
In the coming decades, America needs a prosperous and sustainable Egypt working as a partner. As long as we conceive of our primary regional interests in Cold War-era terms, the Egyptian people and Arabs everywhere are right to be skeptical of Washington's assistance. It is time to turn the page, let the people of Egypt decide who will govern them and then work with the largest Arab nation to build a brighter Middle Eastern future.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick C. Doherty.