President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed  for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.

Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern —  the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could  — and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy?

According to America’s 43rd president:

As Americans, our goal should be to help reformers turn the end of tyranny into durable, accountable civic structures. Emerging democracies need strong constitutions, political parties committed to pluralism, and free elections. Free societies depend upon the rule of law and property rights, and they require hopeful economies, drawn into open world markets.

This work will require patience, creativity and active American leadership. It will involve the strengthening of civil society—with a particular emphasis on the role of women. It will require a consistent defense of religious liberty. It will mean the encouragement of development, education and health, as well as trade and foreign investment. There will certainly be setbacks. But if America does not support the advance of democratic institutions and values, who will?

It’s important to bear in mind that the United States’ transition to freedom was hardly smooth. Nearly a century after our liberation from Great Britain we fought what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin called “probably the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century and perhaps even of all modern history.” It was, he said, “the great trauma of our national life.” With the Civil War on our record, we might want to show a bit of patience toward those who are emerging from broken and pathologized societies.

To be clear: the overthrow of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes does not always end well. One form of tyranny can give way to another. As Bush said in his speech, “Freedom is a powerful force.  But it does not advance on wheels of historical inevitability. And it is history that proves this point. The American Revolution of 1776 produced George Washington, who embodied the democratic habits of a new nation. The French Revolution of 1789 eventually produced Napoleon, who set out to conquer Europe. The outcome of a freedom revolution is determined by human choices and the creation of durable democratic traditions.”

To return to the here and now: Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi could be much worse than Egypt under Mubarak. But the revolution came. We couldn’t have stopped it even if we wanted to. The pertinent question is whether the United States has either the interest or the capacity to help shape the outcome there and elsewhere in the Muslim world in ways that strengthen civil society and advance genuine human liberty; in ways that bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, one might say.

Once upon a time, the United States had a president – several presidents, in fact – who cared about such things. Today, it’s not at all clear that we do.

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