'The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as the Libyan government began its crackdown. Talking about Egypt on Fox News last month, Sen. John McCain said, "This, I would argue, is probably the most dangerous period of history in—of our entire involvement in the Middle East, at least in modern times."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, announced at the start of a tour of the Gulf states last week, "I think the dominant issue of the day is going to be stability in the Middle East."
It's safe to talk about "instability" in the Middle East right now because we can all agree that the situation is not stable. It's also alarming and dangerous. "Instability," "alarm," and "danger" aren't moral judgments; they're factual observations. There are other words that no one is saying which would make more of a statement—"hope," "liberty," and "opportunity," and even just "right" and "wrong." But not many are willing to say those words right now, for good reason. There's a lot of fear of the unknown when it comes to the Middle East, of what could follow after the aging patriarchs fall.
For so many years, Americans have thought that the choice in the Middle East was between stability and freedom. Autocrats who repressed their people, such as Hosni Mubarak, were seen as the safe alternative to the rise of religious extremists and al Qaeda. We'd rather deal with the devil we know, because he can keep things under control. If we open the door to freedom, who knows what will come over the threshold. So we chose stability. [See photos of the Egypt protests.]
Stability explains why President Obama was so quiet during Iran's failed Green Revolution. Stability also was the underpinning of Obama's 2009 speech at Cairo University. Rather than a stirring call to freedom, that legal brief of a speech began with a long preface on Islam, then explored a list of seven "sources of tension" and how he'd like to bring more stability to each: violent extremism, the Middle East peace process, nuclear proliferation, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development. The rather technical section on democratic reforms was only four paragraphs long in a 55 minute speech, almost an afterthought. On the list of American priorities, concerns about stability outranked the spread of freedom. But liberty has ranked higher for the protesters on the streets of cities throughout the Middle East in recent weeks.
Looking back on it now, the Cairo speech seems to be a reaction to the freedom agenda most famously laid out in President George W. Bush's second inaugural address. Bush held that America should be the beacon of freedom throughout the world, but at the time, the left saw Bush's rhetoric as merely a justification for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rejected it as saber rattling. Written well before the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, and even China started organizing in protests, that inaugural address couldn't be more different from Obama's Cairo speech. [See a slide show of 15 major post-Cold War uprisings.]
"We have seen our vulnerability—and we have seen its deepest source," Bush said. "For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. . . . We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
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.