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US message to Arab world matters -- and Obama is sending the wrong one

The message the US projects abroad will resonate long after the final pass of the Super Bowl. The US must lend its full-throated support to the protesters of the Arab world. It matters – both for the future of the region, and the future of America. Sitting on the sidelines may cost us more than our regional standing; it may cost us our own ideals.

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What does US stand for?

This is an existential question. Does the United States exist as any nation does – simply to protect its own citizens, borders, and strategic interests? Or are we something more – a nation and people that considers, as President John F. Kennedy once said, "the survival and success of liberty" to be a foundational objective?

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If we are the latter, it is without a doubt long overdue for America's political leaders and diplomats to name names, and stand overtly with these protesters. Such outspoken solidarity mattered in the 1980s in Warsaw and Bucharest, and matters all the more today, when media can carry the voices of our leaders across the globe instantly.

And these words matter equally for the galvanizing effect they can have on protesters, as they do for the simultaneously dispiriting effect they have on dictators with few remaining friends. Alternatively, indecisiveness in moments of crisis is equivalent to endorsing the status quo.

Message matters

The sad truth is that in the coming weeks, many Americans will probably begin to forget about these brave protesters. We'll focus again on the coming Super Bowl, various movie releases, celebrity scandals, and all manner of distractions that flood our news media. We may find ourselves in a world with new, democratic governments in the Arab world. Or we may count Tunisia as the only survivor, for now.

But what our leaders say, and the message our nation projects abroad, will resonate long after the Super Bowl. The support we lend or withhold to democracy in the Arab world matters – both for the future of the region, and the future of America. What American leaders say, and the support they must give, can mean the difference between success and defeat, or life and death, in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Sanaa, or Riyadh.

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In 1806, Thomas Jefferson remarked in a letter to James Monroe that, “Political interest [can] never be separated in the long run from moral right.” Standing resolutely for these protesters in these struggles may see new, vibrant democracies emerge throughout the Arab world. Sitting on the sidelines in silence may cost us more than our standing in the Arab world; it will come at the cost of our own ideals.

Adrian Hong is the director of The Pegasus Project, a visiting associate professional specialist at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, and a senior fellow with TED, a non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.


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