The Promise of Liberty: The ballot is not infallible, but it has broken the Arab pact with tyranny (FOUAD AJAMI, February 7, 2006, Opinion Journal)
It was not historical naiveté that had given birth to the Bush administration’s campaign for democracy in Arab lands. In truth, it was cruel necessity, for the campaign was born of the terrors of 9/11. America had made a bargain with Arab autocracies, and the bargain had failed. It was young men reared in schools and prisons in the very shadow of these Arab autocracies who came America’s way on 9/11. We had been told that it was either the autocracies or the furies of terror. We were awakened to the terrible recognition that the autocracies and the terror were twins, that the rulers in Arab lands were sly men who displaced the furies of their people onto foreign lands and peoples.
This had been the truth that President Bush underscored in his landmark speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on Nov. 6, 2003, proclaiming this prudent Wilsonianism in Arab lands: “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. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place for stagnation, resentment and violence for export.” Nothing in Palestine, nothing that has thus far played out in Iraq, and scant little of what happened in other Arab lands, negates the truth at the heart of this push for democratic reform. The “realists” tell us that this is all doomed, that the laws of gravity in the region will prevail, that autocracy, deeply ingrained in the Arab-Muslim lands, is sure to carry the day. Modern liberalism has joined this smug realism, and driven by an animus toward the American leader waging this campaign for liberty, now asserts the built-in authoritarianism of Arab society.
Hitherto, we had granted the Arab world absolution from the laws of historical improvement. We had ceded it a crippling “exceptionalism.” We explained away our complicity in its historical decay as the price paid for access to its oil, and as the indulgence owed some immutable “Islamic” tradition. To be fair, we could not find our way to its politically literate classes, for they were given to a defective political tradition. American power now ventures into uncharted territory; we have shaken up that world, and broken the pact with tyranny. In the shadow of American power, ordinary men and women who had known nothing but the caprice of rulers and the charlatanism of intellectual classes have gone out to proclaim that tyranny is neither fated, nor “written.”
The ballot is not infallible, and in Palestine we have now seen it reflect the atavisms of that society and the revolt against bandits and pretenders who had draped their predatory ways in the garb of secularism. But we can’t hide behind “anthropology” and moral and political relativism. We can no longer claim that this is Araby, self-contained and immutable, under an eternal sky. We have rolled history’s dice in the region, challenged its stagnant ways. And even where the ballot has not gone–in the Arabian Peninsula to be exact–there now can be felt a breeze of human and political improvement.
The belligerence that was loose in the peninsula two or three years earlier appears milder now, as new ideas of tolerance struggle to take hold. This assertion by George W. Bush that despotism need not be the Arab destiny is about the only bond between the United States and the Arab world. In its optimism, this diplomacy of freedom recalls that brief moment after the Great War when Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points held out the promise of liberty to those Arab and Muslim lands. To be sure, there are the “usual suspects” among the Arabs who are averse to the message and to the American messenger, and our pollsters and reporters know the way to them. But this crowd does not reflect the broader demand for a new political way. We have given tyranny the patience of decades. Surely we ought to be able to extend a measure of indulgence to freedom’s meandering path.
The promise of Realism is that we can join with dictators to oppress the other forever. But it’s a false promise and an un-American/un-Christian desire. Arabs aren’t going to prove anymore immutably antidemocratic than blacks, Catholics, Slavs, Asians, Africans, etc. before them did.