"Dictatorships are stable," I have often been told by friends who object to my unwavering commitment to democracy promotion, "In a dangerous world we need stability more than freedom." My answer to them has always been, "dictatorships are stable, until they aren't." Their argument continues, "But not all cultures are the same," they say, "they don't all value individual freedom as much as we do, we should stop pushing on them our western ideals," and with their words serving as judge, jury and executioner for the world's oppressed.
This month, all those arguments seem finally to have fallen by the wayside. The planet's greatest bastion of authoritarianism - the Arab world - is trembling. Starting with the ouster of Tunisia's dictator on January 14th, the "Arab street" has been emboldened to challenge their own authoritarians. The revolts have spread quickly. From Yemen to Jordan young people have emerged from their houses to protest against generations of oppression. Perhaps most significantly, the government of Egypt appears to be on the brink. This is significant for several reasons. Egypt is the Arab world's most populous state. It is important politically, being the host nation of the Arab League; and Cairo University is arguably the Arab world's most respected academic institution. For the west, Egypt has been an important partner in the ongoing peace process with Israel. For all these reasons, we could be witnessing the most important moment in Arab political history in our lifetimes.
Unfortunately this news comes as a mixed blessing for the United States. For too long, our policy on the Arab peninsula has been fraught with inconsistencies. We claim to be the guarantors of freedom in the world, and yet we make our places in the beds of some of the world's most brutal tyrants. We claim to support freedom of religion and watch converts to Christianity executed. We claim to defend woman's rights and sit idly by while women are stoned to death. We do this because we are afraid of the alternative. We follow daily the unending results of President Carter's attempt to push democracy in Iran (not an Arab country for sure but an important Islamic Republic) and administration after administration decides "better the devil we know."
Vice President Biden summed up our misguided policy in an interview with PBS last night, "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with - with Israel... I would not refer to him as a dictator. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that - to be more responsive to some... of the needs of the people out there."
This policy has caused a significant credibility problem with the "Arab street." The United States is viewed as hypocritical, willing to push democratic freedoms that affect the daily lives of millions only when it does not interrupt, as Vice-President Biden puts it, our "geopolitical interest." To be sure, this crisis of credibility is not the responsibility of the Obama administration alone. An unending line of Republican and Democratic administrations have come and gone without improving our dictator problems. In the aftermath of September 11, when then-President Bush realized that the attackers that fateful day came from important countries that ally themselves with the U.S.'s "geopolitical interests," he began to formulate the policy that would become known as the "freedom agenda." Leaning heavily on former Gulag "refusenik" and Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky's book, A Case for Democracy, Bush outlined three central principles which he believed should guide American foreign policy: that the desire for freedom is universal, that democracy is essential for security and that free nations should hinge their policy toward unfree nations to the gradual expansion of domestic liberties. This book became the bible for democracy promoters worldwide, eloquently outlining what we inherently knew to be true.
Unfortunately, in the daily Presidential dance of crisis management the reforms that the Bush Administration wanted from especially our Arab allies did not come fast enough. Even the tepid demands by the Bush administration, in 2005 calling on Egypt to lead democratic reforms across the region, fell on deaf ears. The "freedom agenda" began to resemble an attempt to topple anti-American dictators instead of the universal promotion of individual freedoms - among friend and foe alike. The agenda also brought un-intended but important complications to our global relationships such as the Hamas victory in Gaza and paving the groundwork for the eventual takeover by Hezbollah of the newly independent Lebanese government.
The Obama administration, perhaps mindful of these setbacks, has been even more timid in the promotion of the "truths we hold self-evident." During the now-defunct Iranian "green revolution," President Obama famously refused to wade into the fray. His support to Tunisian democracy during the State of the Union this year was facile, considering the dictator had already been ousted. Seeing President Bush's "freedom agenda" as too aggressive, the current administration's reticence to push democracy even among backsliding anti-American countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Russia, and others has allowed the consolidation of dictatorships across the world.
Returning to Egypt, decades of bad policies have left the Obama administration in a difficult situation. As the Council on Foreign Relations' President Emeritus Leslie Gelb stated, "In rotten regimes that fall to street mobs, the historical pattern has been moderates followed by new dictators. Just remember the model of the Bolsheviks, a tiny group of extremely well-organized communists, wresting control away from the great majority of discontented and disorganized Russians in 1917." Complicating the situation is the mercurial nature of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, Egypt's primary opposition movement. Especially important to the United States is Egypt's diplomatic recognition of Israel, seen as a fundamental component of any peace process. The Obama administration is walking a fine line - but is most likely negatively perceived by the Brotherhood due to the United States' thirty year support of the Mubarak regime. Nobody knows what a Brotherhood-led government would look like, or how it would behave.
However the complications of the current situation in the Arab world play out, the Obama administration should take this as an opportunity to once and for all revise the U.S. policy of support for dictators of any stripe. He should set in place an agenda, as former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said, " which makes possible the construction of societies gradually more just, without extremes and in peace." Otherwise, the Obama administration will be seen as continuing to lead the United States on the wrong side of history.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.