And so the question seems even more relevant now: Is it in America's best security interests for the nations of North Africa and the Middle East to be free countries?
It's a complicated question, with different answers for different nations. Just as many of us struggled with the question of whether our commitment to freedom of speech and assembly withstood the idea of burning an American flag or building a mosque near Ground Zero, the events of the last few weeks test our commitment to democracy. Would we rather have a freely elected government in Egypt that is headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, or would we rather not have democracy there at all? Does people power trump paternalistic authority every time, even if those people are hostile to us and our way of life? [Read more about U.S. national security issues.]
We like to think that we stand as the leading democratic nation in the world, on the side of liberty for all. But if the price of oil goes up as a result of Middle Eastern countries becoming democracies, or if wars break out among them—very real possibilities—should we prefer that their people be ruled by repressive regimes rather than political parties? Are we for democracy for some of the people, some of the time? Many of the people in the streets of Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, and Yemen may not always agree with American policies. But judging from their posters and their chants, they agree with the idea upon which our nation was founded.
Early last week a Bahraini man, Sayed Jaffa, brought his baby to the city roundabout for a peaceful protest. "I am here for his future," Jaffa told the New York Times. "We will guarantee that he will grow up in a democracy." That democracy may not look exactly like ours, but I can understand his hope for the future. It's the same as mine.