The lesson from these events is that America should be anticipating democratic traditions long before a crisis makes them urgent -- trying to encourage the leadership and institutions that will make eventual change less traumatic. These efforts in Egypt were halfhearted and inconsistent. Someday, absent a shift in policy, we are likely to say the same of China. In the modern world, it is a short distance from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen. An active democracy promotion strategy -- engaging authoritarian regimes while cultivating the leaders and parties that may replace them -- is alternately criticized as paternalistic, unrealistic and hypocritical. Until a moment such as this, when it is revealed as the essential, practical work of American diplomacy.
But now the options in Egypt are limited. It is difficult to do much steering when you have already entered the rapids -- though it is worth a try. Repeating its performance following the Iranian protests of June 2009, the Obama administration initially adopted a prudence indistinguishable from paralysis. It does not know how to respond in these situations because it does not know its own mind. Is democracy promotion a naive relic of the Bush era? Or does liberalism, perhaps, have something to do with the confident defense of liberty? At this point, there is little choice but to call for monitored elections later this year that don't include Mubarak.
Many foreign policy experts are serially surprised by demands for self-government in cultures different from our own -- by the tenacity of Iraqi democracy or by the determined crowds in Tehran, Tunis or Cairo. Between these outbreaks, they sneer at the prospect of Jeffersonian ideals taking root in the rocky soil of the Middle East. During these events, they seem embarrassed by the miracle. But the universal desire for self-government does not require a basis in Enlightenment philosophy. It is rooted in the natural human resentment of humiliation. No one wants to be a pawn in the power games of elites forever. Condoning an unjust stability involves the assumption that people will remain in servility, suffering and silence. The pervasive failure of American foreign policy elites is a lack of confidence in American ideals.
Democratic revolutions can be defeated by violence or co-opted by radicals. But again, we are seeing that it is neither principled nor prudent for America to base its strategies in the Middle East on the denial of rights we value.