We are about to miss a historic opportunity to advance American interests.

The Middle East and North Africa are in political and economic transition. Some of these transitions will come after dramatic revolutionary upheavals — in Tunisia, Egypt and, hopefully, Libya, Syria and ultimately Iran. Some will come — if we are fortunate — without the need for revolutionary upheaval; for example, in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, hopefully, Bahrain. In these states, enlightened monarchs and progressive rulers have the opportunity to lead political and economic reform and open their societies to greater political and economic participation. This already appears to be happening in Morocco.

Such periods of transition have happened before. After World War II, the United States helped Japan and Germany build futures based on political democracy and market economies that drove an unprecedented period of peace and economic prosperity in Europe and in Asia. In Central and Eastern Europe after the Cold War, the United States and the European Union worked together to foster a similar transition. These states are now part of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

We have a similar opportunity in the Middle East and North Africa. It will be turbulent and sometimes threatening. The Arab Awakening will give rise to seasons of hope and periods of despair.

But there is no going back. The region’s experiment with authoritarianism — which our nation and many others supported in the name of stability — has failed. It deprived the people of hope and produced an incubator of terrorism. That was the lesson of Sept. 11.

Americans, of all people, should support the search for greater freedom, democracy, justice and human dignity in the region. Our nation was founded on the belief the “all men [and women] are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We believe that free, democratic societies better meet the needs of their people, are less likely to threaten their neighbors, are poor recruiting grounds for terrorists, and are ultimately more stable. Our great challenge — and opportunity — is to help the people of the Middle East and North Africa transition to freedom, democracy and prosperity.

We know how to help build the infrastructure of democracy: fair elections, political parties, free media and the rule of law. We know how to help stabilize economies, establish free markets and encourage foreign trade and investment that can provide a better economic life.

But our nation has not yet shown the organization or commitment required to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

It is not a question of massive amounts of U.S. money or a go-it-alone U.S. effort. Our nation cannot afford that, and the situation does not require it. Global organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional banks and oil-rich Arab states, can take the lead in stabilizing post-revolutionary economies. Expert economists can help establish the framework for effective free markets. Major international companies (many headquartered in the United States) and their European and regional counterparts can be the source of foreign direct investment that can create jobs in the region as well as demand for goods and services that can create jobs here. International and nongovernmental organizations — with some governmental support — can help build the infrastructure of democracy.

This approach also reflects regional politics. The Middle East is not looking for a big U.S. government footprint. Assistance from international organizations, European nations or neighboring states may be much more politically acceptable. Help from the private sector, charitable foundations and NGOs may be even better.

The role for the U.S. government is to help organize a “comprehensive approach” by our nation and others, bringing together and coordinating the disparate efforts. But first the U.S. government needs to organize itself.

The president needs to appoint an empowered official reporting to him (or to the president through the secretary of state) to work full time on this effort. This official must create a small interagency team to coordinate all relevant U.S. government agencies in a unified approach. Even more important, this official must reach out to and encourage action by the various nongovernmental entities whose contribution will probably be even more critical to this effort.

It is an effort worth making. We know the price of a failed post-revolutionary transition. The 1979 uprising against the shah of Iran was conducted in the name of freedom and democracy. But it was soon hijacked by a radical Islamist regime that still rules Iran and brutally oppresses its people. Through its support for terror, pursuit of nuclear weapons and subversion of its neighbors, this regime has been one of the biggest threats to our nation, Israel and our Arab allies for three decades.

We cannot afford more failed transitions in the Middle East.

Stephen J. Hadley, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, was national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.