The most persistent question people with an interest in the Middle East ask is “what will it take for peace to emerge in the Middle East?” Parenthetically, they also question who can make it happen. An unvarnished answer to the first question is the spread of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom throughout the Arab/Muslim world and in Iran. As to the second question, a strong U.S. commitment to spreading democracy in much of the Middle East is the answer.
There is no question that the majority of Arabs and Iranians want to live in freedom, and there is good reason to believe that most Arabs and Iranians would prefer to live in a democracy rather than under a royal absolutist regime such as in Saudi Arabia. The same can be said for the military dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, and Syria and Iran’s oppressive theocratic regime. The Green Revolution, on full display last year, was a testament to the Iranian people’s quest for freedom. Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the European governments embraced these freedom seekers.
The inspirational leadership of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, which touted freedom and democracy in the 1980s, fostered great gains for democracy around the world. His Westminster speech of June 8, 1982, in which he addressed members of the British Parliament, became one of his most memorable. “Around the world today,” he said, “the democratic revolution is gathering new strength…No; democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.”
The impetus President Reagan gave to freedom and democracy spread through the 1990s, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism. In 1900, there were only 10 democracies in the world. Following WWII, some 30 democracies existed, and by 2005, 119 of 190 counties were democratic; that is an astounding 63% of the world governments. American leadership and Ronald Reagan’s confidence in the people’s desire for freedom are largely responsible for that dramatic upsurge in democracy. Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration, led by President Barack Obama, “prefers to see the world as it is,” to use the words of the former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
President George W. Bush also made the promotion of democracy an essential part of his foreign policy — particularly in the Middle East. He understood that leaving the Arab Middle East “as it is” would breed ever growing numbers of Islamic terrorists. In a televised speech on November 6, 2003, President Bush deplored the “freedom deficit in the Middle East.” He added, “Our commitment to democracy is being tested in the Middle East.”
In his second term however, President Bush’s “freedom agenda” came to a halt. Hamas’s sweep in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, greatly encouraged by Bush, caused him to rethink the notion of “free elections” as the ultimate act of democracy. G.W. Bush failed to grasp that elections are the final act in the democratic process, which must be preceded by a viable civil society, the rule of law, the rise of democratic institutions, and a transparent market economy.
But if President G.W. Bush was dissuaded by the results of the Palestinian election, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing freedom and democracy to Lebanon. His successor, President Obama, rejected the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East from the time he took office, following through on what he said during the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama used moral equivalency to reject the notion that the U.S. could promote morality and democracy in other countries when the U.S. employs the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and so-called “torture.” He also rejected the term “war on terror” while refusing to mention “Islamic terror.”
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