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A Forward Strategy of Freedom

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 23, 2012
Foreign Policy


There is a sour mood nowadays about the so-called Arab Spring. Armed gangs roam in Libya, Salafists win votes in Egypt, and minorities like the Egyptian Copts live in fear -- as does the Shiite majority in Bahrain. The whole "experiment" seems to some critics to be a foolish, if idealistic project that promises to do nothing but wreak havoc in the Middle East. These same critics cast blame at the Americans who applauded the Arab revolts of the past year: naive, ideological, ignorant, dangerous folk.

As one of those folk, allow me to strike back.

The failures of the Arab world's rulers were manifest and explicitly described well before 2011, and it was no secret that these deficiencies threatened their hold on power. In 2002, the U.N. Development Program's Arab Human Development Report noted that the spread of democracy in recent decades from Latin America to Eastern Europe "has barely reached the Arab States." It was precisely this lack of freedom, the report argued, that "undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development."

U.S. President George W. Bush recognized this stark reality. "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?" he asked at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

Bush and the U.N. Development Program's analysis were right, and those who judged that the old regimes could survive forever were wrong. What has been called "authoritarian resilience" turned out to be less impressive after all, and the popular hatred of those regimes much greater.

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