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Global Viewpoint

West must support democracy in Arab world as it did in Central Europe

Western leaders must support democracy in the Arab world now in 2011 as they did in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. The time for viewing dictatorships as defenders of Western civilization is finished.

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In the background of hesitant American and European reactions, Israel’s response to the unexpected democratization in Egypt has been to strengthen fences on its southern border. Unlike Mr. Eagleburger in 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech, greeted by repeated standing ovations, before a joint session of the US Congress, welcomed attempts at democratization in the Arab world. Yet he added that political changes in these countries might lead to an Iranian type of “ferocious and unforgiving tyranny” or the “medieval rule of Hezbollah.”

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In 1989, however, there were Western politicians who saw opportunities for epochal change in the highly uncertain situations in which others saw dangers of unleashing uncontrollable processes. Following earlier visits to the region by Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand, US President George H.W. Bush visited Poland and Hungary in 1989 at a time when the supporters of the old regional and global order were still in the majority.

These visits were used to express unambiguous readiness to welcome change in the old regional and global order and offer an inspiring vision about the potential new international order that could come about as a result of successful democratization in Central Europe.

In his speech in Warsaw on July 10, 1989, Mr. Bush cast democratization as an opportunity to move beyond bipolar geopolitics: “Poland is where the Cold War began, and now the people of Poland can help bring the division of Europe to an end.”

He echoed these themes two days later in Budapest, adding that the guiding principle of the United States would be to “offer assistance not to prop up the status quo but to propel reform,” emphasizing that the United States would offer assistance – but only if negotiations resulted in institutionalized safeguards for pluralist democracy.

Bush’s public speeches pictured domestic supporters of peaceful democratization as prime movers (and future beneficiaries) of epochal changes in regional and global politics. Widely reported in the region, they sent signals to still dormant or hesitant reformers and inactive democratic opposition in the other Central and Eastern Europe countries about what roles the future might hold for them.

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