The uprisings in the Middle East have been stopped dead in their tracks by a ferocious reaction from some of the world’s worst dictatorships, emboldened by international apathy.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime has recovered its balance and systematically pushed rebel forces back. Ras Lanuf has fallen. Brega has fallen. Ajdabiya is under siege. After that, it’s Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion.

Momentum is now with the Gaddafis, and momentum for a no-fly zone appears to be fading. In any event, a no-fly zone may come too late to help the rebels. The time to impose it was in the first weeks of the uprising, when Gaddafi’s forces were in disarray; he needed mercenaries flown in from around the continent and was struggling to maintain control of Tripoli itself.

Representatives of the rebel National Council are now calling not just for a no-fly zone but air strikes on Gaddafi’s heavy armour and one to take out Gaddafi himself. The slaughter that will accompany the restoration of the regime’s control of rebel-held areas is unthinkable but, perhaps, increasingly inevitable.

The Gaddafi example will be instructive to the despots of the region. Both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak only used half-measures against protesters. Both were forced out. Gaddafi has responded with the most blatant and brutal slaughter of protesters, and it is working for him. The outraged response of the West so far consists of sanctions, investigations and some high-quality hand-wringing.

In Bahrain, the regime of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa used the distraction of the Japanese earthquake to launch a wave of vigilantes and thugs at protesters — a play used by Hosni Mubarak — as well as stepping up police repression in response to a surge in protests in Manama. Now Saudi troops are arriving to be deployed against protesters, setting the scene for further bloodshed.

The Saudi troops aren’t invading Bahrain, given they’ve been invited in by the Bahraini regime, but for all intents and purposes it is a Saudi military response to the Middle East uprisings. And it’s likely to be bloody.

It’s an unfortunate departure from the narrative the Obama administration has been running on Bahrain — a crucial US Navy base — that the government was investigating those responsible for the savage attacks on protesters in February that killed at least seven people and a political dialogue was underway between the regime and protesters. Now the Americans are back to the inevitable urging of “restraint”, a phrase presumably now hard-wired into keyboards in Western foreign ministries.

The realpolitik foreign policy types are trying hard to spin events in Bahrain as being all about creeping Iranian influence in the Gulf, and sectarianism. This is a minor variation of the general theme we saw in the reaction to events in Egypt — the attempt to delegitimise anti-regime protests by connecting them with Islamic fundamentalism. It was a theme that brought together a peculiar coalition of interests: Israel and its supporters, the Gulf regimes that demanded the US prop up Hosni Mubarak, and western conservatives who couldn’t quite process Middle Eastern events free of their deep-seated Islamophobia.

The regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh also used the distraction of the earthquake to hit the Yemeni protest movement hard over the weekend, murdering seven protesters. It also deployed nerve gas against protesters, according to Yemeni doctors. The regime has begun deporting foreign journalists, the usual sign that something deeply unpleasant is being planned.

The one consistent theme, right from the outset when protests erupted in Tunisia, has been the Obama administration’s profound confusion about how to respond. There’s been plenty of criticism of the US from both pro and anti-interventionists — John Pilger, bizarrely, started a piece on WikiLeaks by accusing the US and UK of looking for an excuse to invade Libya, while others have accused it of trying to prop up its client states in the region.

But if the long-standing US policy on defence of Taiwan is termed “strategic ambiguity”, its Middle Eastern policy is best described as strategic uncertainty, torn between backing its faithful tyrant allies, urging them to undertake reform and then, half-heartedly, declaring itself in support of reformers. True, Gaddafi’s response of homicidal mania made a US position altogether easier on Libya, but that hasn’t been backed by any action, whereas at least the French Sarkozy government, racing to make up for how badly it blundered in Tunisia, recognised the Libyan National Council.

Now the Americans have to stand back and watch as Saudi Arabia intervenes in Bahrain, guaranteeing any reform process there will be stopped dead at gunpoint. Beneath it all is the realisation the House of Saud — an outright evil regime that impresses even in the Middle East for its gruesome barbarity — is fundamental to all US strategic interests, and its overthrow could not be countenanced by Washington, especially given its role as the regional counterbalance to other, equally savage, fundamentalists who run Iran.

The last three months could have been a chance for the West to offset decades of hypocrisy and support for Middle Eastern regimes through a strong declaration of support for Arab protesters committed to greater freedom, a signal to ordinary Arabs that no longer would they be regarded as the trivia of geopolitics, but recognised as having the same same valid concerns for economic opportunity and political freedom as Western people. Instead we’ve sent the worst possible signals — that regimes will be rewarded for violence, that our obsession with “stability” remains as strong as ever, that we’ll sit back and decide whom to support once we know the winner.

The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, its former Middle East editor who has been covering the uprisings right from their early stages, takes an optimistic view and believes the prospects for genuine reform in the Middle East are now better than ever. One desperately hopes he is right, but either way the West has yet again sent a clear message to Arabs: we’ll talk and talk about human rights and freedom but don’t expect us to ever back it up if you take us seriously.

Peter Fray

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