John Hughes

How much does Obama value freedom? Arab uprisings will be his test.

The overall endgame in the Middle East is not clear. But as the region is engulfed in radical change, the Obama administration faces a policy dilemma: Should it encourage the progression to democracy, or preserve autocratic leaders who offer allegiance to the US?

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Tyrants beware. That is the dramatic lesson from turmoil in the Arab world for those rulers who maintain power by diktat instead of democracy.

First came Tunisia’s revolt against dictatorship, then Egypt’s. Then stirrings in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain. In Libya a defiant and delusional dictator hurled air power and mercenaries against street protesters. The non-Arab regime in Muslim Iran, with hollow hypocrisy, trumpeted Egypt’s freedom movement then assaulted and imprisoned its own protesters who demanded the same.

The overall endgame in the Middle East is not clear. But as the region is engulfed in radical change fomented by digital technology, what should America do now?

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Libya’s oil fields are an obvious concern. But the first priority is Egypt, the heartland of the Arab world. The United States should speak out in support of a free press, the oxygen of democracy, along with a new constitution, free elections, a government responsive to the people, and an independent judiciary. If Egypt asks for help in establishing the infrastructure of democracy, the US should provide it generously, without fanfare. The most significant US contribution may be to quietly press the Egyptian military to protect the new order, not rule it.

As other nations of the Middle East awake, the Obama administration faces a policy dilemma. Which is paramount: encouraging the progression to democracy, or preserving autocratic leaders who offer allegiance to the US? Though the fast-moving transition in Egypt was admittedly difficult to read from day to day, the Obama administration appeared to wobble between the two. The president seemed to champion the spirit of the anti-Mubarak protesters, while the professional diplomats anguished over the precipitate removal of a friendly Egyptian president.

Sacrifice for the freedom of others

The early history of America is one of sacrifice for its own freedom. The later history has been one of sacrifice for the freedom of others. It is inconceivable that the US should diminish its voice now in support of freedom for the peoples of the Middle East or North Korea or China (which sought to muffle the news of revolt in Egypt) or other lands where the people remain hobbled by autocracies.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim, but non-Arab, nation in the world, is a testament to successful American diplomacy in the nation’s long progression from the dictatorship of Sukarno, through the disappointingly corruption-ridden regime of Suharto, to eventual free elections and democratically chosen leaders in 1999. A once-dominant military has been distanced from government. Throughout, the US has been helpful and generous. It has maintained a cordial relationship with Indonesia while observing the Indonesian leadership’s desire to maintain a nonaligned posture in global politics. Said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on a visit last year: “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”

Turkey is another example of a successful non-Arab land where Islam and democracy coexist. It is also a nation with a formidable military that has flexed its muscles in the past but is now kept at bay from the government. Relations between Turkey and the US dipped in 2003 when the Turkish parliament refused to permit transit of American troops through its country to open a second front in the war with Iraq. When Barack Obama won the presidency, he made an early visit to Turkey for a key outreach speech to the Muslim world. The US-Turkey relationship improved as President Obama called Turkey a “critical” ally and declared the US was “not at war with Islam.”

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Indonesia and Turkey are significant symbols for the Muslim world of the compatibility of democracy and Islam.

What Egypt and Tunisia and the other stirring lands in the Middle East have proved is the fallacy of the sometimes-advanced theory that Arabs are somehow a branch of mankind untouched by the desire for freedom. Obama, and presidents after him, should speak out fearlessly for freedom in lands still to find it.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Indonesia.

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