Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is the conservative critique of the freedom agenda that democratic transformations are hopeless or dangerous in societies lacking democratic cultures. The people of Iraq, said George F. Will, are "just three people away from democratic success. Unfortunately, the three are George Washington, James Madison and John Marshall." Middle Eastern tyrants, Peggy Noonan once argued, "have functioned in history as -- ugly imagery coming -- garbage-can lids on their societies. They keep freedom from entering, it is true. But when they are removed, the garbage -- the freelance terrorists, the grievance merchants, the ethnic nationalists -- pops out all over."

The Arab winter of discontent provides evidence to assess the claim that Arab peoples are leaderless trash. It is true that few world-historic figures have emerged from these events. Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa will not be confused with Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela. Even Wael Ghonim -- the Google guy -- symbolizes a new type of decentralized, Web-based leadership rather than providing it himself.

But a leaderless revolution is impressive in its own way. Whole nations have reached a critical mass of humiliation. Technology has provided both a comparison to more successful societies and a mechanism to collect and channel discontent. Politicians and opportunists of various stripes have struggled to keep up with a generational revolt.

While the revolution is democratic in form, it may take a while to get the content right. Civic institutions in the Middle East -- political parties, courts and electoral systems -- are weak by the design of dictators. Democratic transitions can be difficult. Even Washington, Madison and Marshall presided over a democratic culture in which one in seven human beings was eventually owned by another -- a contradiction only resolved by a civil war that left an estimated 6 million pounds of human and animal carcasses lying on a field near Gettysburg. I suspect that Arab transitions, whatever their difficulties, will be better than this.

No good outcome is guaranteed. But two things have changed permanently in the Middle East.

First, the people of that region now have heroes of reform, who look exactly like themselves. They have seen Arab men and women impatient with injustice and capable of unsuspected greatness. With little help from outsiders -- and no leadership from the United States -- Arabs have demanded accountable government. Generations will recall these shining events, which serve the symbolic purpose of Bunker Hill.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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