Commentary Magazine


America the Emancipator

The gifted scholar and writer Fouad Ajami has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

According to Ajami, Barack Obama’s “new way forward” is actually a “return to realpolitik and business as usual in America’s encounter with that Greater Middle East.” Professor Ajami then adds:

Say what you will about the style — and practice — of the Bush years, the autocracies were on notice for the first five or six years of George. W. Bush’s presidency. America had toppled Taliban rule and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; it had frightened the Libyan ruler that a similar fate lay in store for him. It was not sweet persuasion that drove Syria out of Lebanon in 2005. That dominion of plunder and terror was given up under duress…. the assertive diplomacy of George W. Bush had given heart to Muslims long in the grip of tyrannies…. The irony now is obvious: George W. Bush as a force for emancipation in Muslim lands, and Barack Hussein Obama as a messenger of the old, settled ways… Where Mr. Bush had seen the connection between the autocratic ways in Muslim lands and the culture of terror that infected the young foot soldiers of radicalism, Mr. Obama seems ready to split the difference with their rulers.

Ajami then moves to an important substantive point:

The argument that liberty springs from within and can’t be given to distant peoples is more flawed than meets the eye. In the sweep of modern history, the fortunes of liberty have been dependent on the will of the dominant power — or powers — in the order of states. The late Samuel P. Huntington made this point with telling detail. In 15 of the 29 democratic countries in 1970, democratic regimes were midwifed by foreign rule or had come into being right after independence from foreign occupation.

And then, an ominous warning:

I know it is a cliché, but sooner or later, we shall be hearing from them [foreign challengers and rogue regimes]. They will strip us of our illusions and our (new) parochialism. A dispatch from the Arabian Peninsula bears this out. It was learned, right in the midst of the news cycle announcing that Mr. Obama has ordered that Guantanamo be shut down in a year’s time, that a Saudi by the name of Said Ali al-Shihri — who had been released from that prison in 2007 to his homeland — had made his way to Yemen and had risen in the terror world of that anarchic country. It had been a brief stop in Saudi Arabia for Guantanamo detainee No. 372: He had gone through a “rehabilitation” program there, then slipped across the border to Yemen, where he may have been involved in a terror attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital in September of last year. This war was never a unilateral American war to be called off by an American calendar. The enemy, too, has a vote in how this struggle between American power and radical Islamism plays out in the years to come.

On the matter of democracy: To assume it cannot be exported to other countries is no less foolish than to think it can be easily exported to all other countries. The pendulum swung widely during the Bush years, from those who believed (like George Will in 2002) that “there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy” and that Iraq would usher in a “happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies” to those (like George Will in 2005) who later believed that spreading liberty to the Arab world was a fool’s errand.

The reality is that such undertakings can be enormously complicated and don’t work in a linear fashion. They can move in fits and starts, and it’s unwise and still too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the freedom agenda. But here is what we know: Freedom is taking root in Iraq – and it may, over time, transform the political culture of the Middle East. If so, the war may be looked back upon as a historically important, and positive, hinge point. At this moment, though, the outcome, though encouraging, is still uncertain; and the effort has been more difficult than people hoped when the war began in 2003 and during the “Arab Spring” of only four years ago.

Sometimes wars go easier than one anticipates (like the invasion of Grenada and the first Gulf War), and sometimes they go much harder (like the Phase IV phase of the Iraq war and the Civil War). Sometimes democratic regimes are midwifed by foreign rule and military action; other times, they are not. Sometimes liberty swiftly takes root; other times, the soil is rocky and unwelcoming.

It may be useful, then, to point out a couple of things that are often lost in this era, when advocating freedom in foreign lands is considered uncouth.

The first is that for 60 years, we tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability” in the Middle East. While much of the rest of the world moved toward freedom, the Arab Middle East did not. It suffered from what Arab scholars call a “freedom deficit” that froze social and material progress. Resentments built up, economies went down, and violent ideologies took hold. They can infect an entire region. Unfortunately, that infection does not always stay contained. We witnessed the brutal manifestation of jihadism on 9/11.

President Obama may be eager to return us to the days of Jimmy Carter, when we spoke about human rights on the one hand and bowed before autocrats and despots on the other; or the days of Bill Clinton, with Madeleine Albright frantically chasing after Yasir Arafat. Such an approach may appear to be less burdensome than advocating freedom, but it comes at a high cost – to the Arab world and, eventually, to our own.

The other reality is that democracy has an astonishing historical track record. It hasn’t worked everywhere, but it has worked in most places it’s been tried. That’s not terribly surprising, since democracy and republican government speak to the human desire for freedom, and so (for teleological reasons) lead to human flourishing.

There are important caveats: Human freedom is not the only human desire, and the others (like tribal and ethnic loyalties) can pull in different directions. Elections are not the same as democracy; security needs to be in place before freedom can take root; and the habits and institutions of democracy need to be carefully cultivated. That can be a labor, and it can’t be done everywhere and all at once.

On the other hand, over the course of our history, our efforts to promote liberty in other lands has been an enormously wise investment, to say nothing of a deeply humane one.

No noble endeavor, including spreading freedom, is easy or without costs. In his inaugural address, President Obama quoted from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “American Crisis.” But in the same pamphlet, Paine writes this:

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

We have made missteps along the way, certainly including in the Administration in which I served. But being a force for emancipation in foreign lands (to say nothing of our own) has been central to the American enterprise for much of our history. It should be, and it will be, again.

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