In the most important address of his presidency, he promised to extend Reagan’s “march of freedom” into the Middle East.
As we watch the growing demand that Middle East autocrats and dictators step down, from Iran in June 2009 to Egypt and Libya this February, on the heels of repeated elections in post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq, the wisdom of two presidents keeps coming to mind.
First is Ronald Reagan, who warned dictators that freedom is “contagious.” As he noted in May 1982, the Soviets feared the “infectiousness” of the freedom posed by groups like Solidarity in Poland. Eight years later, with elections held in Poland and the wall down in Berlin, Reagan, no longer president, observed: “As is always the case, once people who have been deprived of basic freedom taste a little of it, they want all of it.” Looking back at the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, he remarked: “It was as if Gorbachev had uncorked a magic bottle and a genie floated out, never to be put back in again.”
As president, Reagan had spoken of a “march of freedom” that would leave Marxism-Leninism on the “ash-heap of history.” He said this often, but most memorably in his June 1982 Westminster speech, which also founded the National Endowment for Democracy.
That brings me to the other president. The president who picked up Reagan’s mantle from Westminster was George W. Bush. Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, Bush gave the most important address of his presidency, promising to extend Reagan’s “march” into the Middle East, the place most resistant to the freedom tide. What Bush said cannot be reiterated enough, and couldn’t be more appropriate than right now, as the next target by the people of the Middle East is the hideous Muammar Gaddafi; from the Taliban, to Saddam, to Ahmadinejad, to Mubarak, to Gaddafi.
Did George W. Bush foresee this? Like Reagan, he tended to speak more generally, but he was specific enough that we can say that Bush would not be surprised at current events. Bush began his November 2003 speech with this:
In June of 1982, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Westminster Palace and declared the turning point had arrived in history…. President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum which would not be halted. He gave this organization its mandate: to add to the momentum of freedom across the world. Your mandate was important 20 years ago; it is equally important today.
A number of critics were dismissive of that speech by the President…. Some observers on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced the speech simplistic and naive, and even dangerous. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.
And if the critics needed data to back that assertion, Bush offered it: “The great democratic movement President Reagan described was already well underway. In the early 1970s, there were about 40 democracies in the world…. As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world.”
Dramatically and emphatically, Bush continued that last sentence with this unequivocal prediction on democracies: “— and I can assure you more are on the way.”
Bush noted that the world had witnessed, in little over a generation, “the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy.” And while future historians would debate the reasons for that surge, Bush had his own, one that was also a motivation: “It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy.” That was George W. Bush’s way of saying that America, at least America under his administration, would do its best to advance that freedom.
The 43rd president, likewise dismissed by critics, then shared his theoretical — even theological — understanding of how this could happen, including in places like the Middle East, pockmarked by military dictatorships:
Over time, free nations grow stronger and dictatorships grow weaker…. Liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here on Earth.
As the colonial era passed away, the Middle East saw the establishment of many military dictatorships. Some rulers adopted the dogmas of socialism, seized total control of political parties and the media and universities. They allied themselves with the Soviet bloc and with international terrorism….
Other men, and groups of men, have gained influence in the Middle East and beyond through an ideology of theocratic terror….
Many Middle Eastern governments now understand that military dictatorship and theocratic rule are a straight, smooth highway to nowhere…. Instead of dwelling on past wrongs and blaming others, governments in the Middle East need to confront real problems…. Governments across the Middle East and North Africa are beginning to see the need for change.
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