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Tunisia as a tipping point

Let's back democracy in Tunisia -- and perhaps prove George W. Bush right about America's calling.

January 19, 2011

Is the Arab world ready for democracy? As the freedom-yearning people of Tunisia cast off a dictator and fight for representative government, it's a question being asked in capitals worldwide.

Former President George W. Bush wouldn't have hesitated to say yes. He laid out his "freedom agenda" in a 2003 speech marking the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

Bush considered the nurturing of democracy to be "the calling of our country." Eight years on, however, the results aren't as straightforward as he might have hoped. U.S. efforts to expand freedom at gunpoint have stalled in Afghanistan and produced an unstable regime in Iraq that is in constant danger of collapsing. Lebanon's secular government recently fell in a power struggle that appears to favor Hezbollah, a militant Islamist movement backed by Iran. Free elections in the Palestinian territories boosted the power of Hamas.

Tunisia, whose corrupt and repressive regime was tolerated for decades by the U.S. in precisely the kind of devil's bargain described by Bush, raises hopes for a more positive outcome. The "jasmine revolution" was led not by clerics but by well-educated young people suffering widespread unemployment. The country has an unusually progressive attitude toward women and is no hotbed of Islamic extremism.

But the revolution could implode if police clashes with protesters continue. The North African wing of Al Qaeda has expressed support for regime change and is urging Tunisians to send their children to its camps for military training. The country is packed with angry, jobless young men who aren't likely to find employment anytime soon, raising worries of increased militancy. And there is significant danger that a new strongman could emerge, offering stability in exchange for freedom. The Obama administration can help fend this off by granting all possible assistance for the staging of free and fair elections and by offering warm diplomatic and trade relations with the newly elected government.

The philosophical seeds of modern democracy were planted during the 18th century Enlightenment, a movement that largely bypassed the Arab world. Given the extraordinary repression and human rights abuses in most Arab countries, some have questioned whether democratic movements there can succeed. But we'd like nothing better than for Tunisia to prove Bush right.

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