Right now the glorious flames of democracy are bursting out all over North Africa and the Middle East. Young people—educated and plugged in to the rest of the world via the internet, but disenfranchised and unemployed while their country’s leaders literally live like kings—are taking to the streets.
In mass demonstrations they are calling for the end of the dictatorships which control their countries and their countries’ wealth. They are demanding the fundamental human rights of self-determination, freedom, and democracy. Courageously and peacefully they are putting their bodies between their goals and the dictators’ security forces. The doctors and lawyers and even members of those same security forces who are joining them confirm their legitimacy. Many have already given their lives.
Ronald Reagan would surely have given rousing speeches and military arms to support these freedom fighters. (Remember how he loved the Contras?) And so you’d kind of think current Republican leaders would at least lend loud vocal support to these young democracy movements. After all, Republican leaders were very sure they knew why young Middle Easterners were so enraged against the U.S. that Osama Bin Laden could recruit them to blow themselves up and terrorize us. It had nothing to do with any bad things we might be doing around the world. “They hate us for our freedoms,” we were assured. So, logically, if we could help these same young people gain these freedoms for themselves, they would stop hating us and become our friends, and terrorism would be defeated.
Earlier this month, nearly a dozen 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls trotted out their stuff before the party’s base at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Strangely, none of them mentioned this path to peace and victory over the terrorists. None of them mentioned fostering democracy in the Middle East or North Africa. Tunisia and Egypt barely came up at all. Republicans seem completely unaware of the historic democratic revolution happening in that part of the world. Instead, they are focused on depriving homeless U.S. war veterans of housing assistance, and on crippling the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gasses. (See House Republican budget proposal.)
Ah, but the Democrats. What a golden gift to them. Amid the terrible domestic political landscape they inherited, surely they would seize on this historic moment to shine the light on foreign affairs. Why, it’s even in their name! Renounce 30 years and more of support for Middle East dictators and come out squarely on the side of democracy. What a way for President Obama to reignite his base, unite all Americans behind something we agree on, and make his mark on history.
At his February 15 press conference, after the Mubarak regime fell to the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, President Obama started out recognizing each country’s autonomy and that we can’t just go imposing democracy on the rest of the world: “[E]ach country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.”
“Good, Obama,” I thought, “a bit cautious but brilliant. Start by subtly renouncing President Bush’s way, of claiming democracy as an excuse to just go in and start a war to overthrow a dictator you don’t like – Saddam in Iraq.”
Obama continued his speech, and I listened with excitement for what I knew was coming: “[B]ut there are certain universal principles that we adhere to,” he said.
“Yes!” I responded. “Appeal to the lofty universal principles!” I could hear the rest and I got ready to recite it with him by heart, the Declaration of Independence’s famous second and third sentences—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In just two glorious, history-making sentences, the whole basis for democratic self-government, laid out universally and irrefutably.
So I was at something of a loss for words when the President went in a different direction. The first “universal principle” he identified? “We don’t believe in violence as a way of—and coercion—as a way of maintaining control. And so we think it’s very important that in all the protests that we’re seeing in—throughout the region that governments respond to peaceful protesters peacefully.”
That’s it, Mr. President? As long as the pro-democracy, pro-independence protestors are peaceful, then the dictators—as they continue to maintain control—should just make sure to respond peacefully? That’s all you got?
For the record, I’m all for peace, but it’s not always the most important thing. Where’s the inspiration, the higher calling, the appeal to justice? Couldn’t you have said, “All Americans – Republicans, Democrats – indeed enlightened people all over the world recognize the fundamental truth laid out by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence. Governments derive their just powers only through the consent of the governed, and they rightfully exist only to secure the liberty and other inalienable rights of their citizens. Therefore we stand with the protestors. We call on the dictators to step down and allow free and fair elections to establish democratic governments.”
President Obama is a good man, a smart man, and he knows this stuff much better than I do. So I worry that there’s a reason he has not yet strongly come out on the side of democracy. The reason is that for more than 30 years, the U.S. has supported the dictatorial regimes that are now being toppled. They stem the threat of fundamentalist Islam. They provide us oil, and shipping lanes, and military bases. They provide us economic and military security. And these, I worry, are now more important to us than democracy.
We are no longer the land of the free, and the home of the brave. We are the land of the secure, the home of the well-fed. This is what worries me. I hope I am wrong.