WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "Explosion Kills Former Prime Minister." "Suicide Terrorist Kills Five at Nightclub." "Car Bomber Kills 125 Police Recruits." "Iraqi Judge Assassinated." These recent headlines describe bloody events in Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, where IEDs, or "body bombs," have killed and maimed hundreds. Though true, these reports have apparently distracted many in the so-called mainstream media from a discomfiting reality: Freedom is on the march down the "Arab street."
Ever since U.S. troops first went to Afghanistan in October 2001, our supposedly more experienced "betters" in Europe and the "prudent potentates of the press" have said that U.S. military action against an Islamic nation would cause the "Arab street" to rise up and crush us. This theme was widely replayed in the build-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- and has been reiterated many times in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture.
Since his Inaugural Address, President Bush has been repeatedly castigated for his "naivety" on one hand and for his "aggressive arrogance" on the other -- because he boldly tells those who suffer tyranny that "the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Yet, despite the carping critics -- and the carnage caused by those who would rather die than see freedom flourish -- any objective observer has to conclude that George W. Bush is right. "The call of freedom" does indeed come "to every mind and every soul." Freedom is indeed on the march -- even down the "Arab street."
It was evident last October in Afghanistan, in the ballots cast by Palestinians in early January and again in late January on the ink-stained fingers of Iraqi men and women, raised in proud defiance against murderous thugs who would return them to brutal bondage.
Whether the America-haters and Bush-bashers want to acknowledge it or not, the "call of freedom" is now being heard in places where American "influence" has long been deemed by the "experts" to be minimal, at best:
-- In December, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians peacefully protested to force a new election when a rigged vote installed Vladimir Putin's handpicked presidential candidate. Today, reformist Viktor Yushchenko governs in Kiev. The Bush administration needed to do little more than lend its voice to the calls for a free and fair election.
-- Last week, in long-suffering Syrian-occupied Lebanon, 25,000 unarmed Christian and Muslim civilians, protesting the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, forced the resignation of Syria's puppet government in Beirut. In the aftermath, the new Iraqi government -- and even the French -- have joined our call for the Syrians to withdraw their forces from Lebanon and deport the residue of Saddam's regime hiding there.
Though they have yet to fully comply, the Syrians have arrested and turned over the former dictator's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al Hassan. And to ensure that those in Damascus who support terror don't get the idea that this is sufficient, President Bush has since told them to "get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon, and give democracy a chance."
-- In Cairo, Hosni Mubarak, never known to be a friend of liberty or democratic institutions, has announced that opposition candidates will be allowed to run for office in the upcoming Egyptian elections. Mubarak has been the only presidential "candidate" since taking power in 1981. While questions remain about who will be "allowed" to run, a taste of liberty in a democratic election may ignite the "fire of freedom" among the "people of the Nile."
-- And now, even the royal family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, seems to be getting the message. Though the recent Saudi "municipal elections" were more show than substance -- the elected councilors wield little power, the ruling House of Saud appoints as many councilors as were elected and only men could vote -- the taste of democracy has intensified the call on the "Arab street" for real elections.
Last week, the kingdom's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, speaking the heretofore unthinkable, said that in future elections women "may" have the right to vote. Unfortunately, he then added, "We know we want to reform, we know we want to modernize, but for God's sake leave us alone."
And therein lies the first problem: The prince doesn't get it. It's not just Bush's promise, "When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you," at work in Saudi Arabia -- it really is a quest for freedom that is sweeping down his "Arab streets," right past minarets preaching repression and hatred for all things "Western."
But Saud al-Faisal isn't alone in misunderstanding what freedom really means -- and from whence it springs. Last week, when President Bush confronted Vladimir Putin about Russia's freedom of the press, Putin shot back with: "We didn't criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS."
Thus the second problem: Saud al-Faisal and Putin apparently believe that holding an election is enough. It's not. As we have learned from the "election" of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, there is much more to freedom than casting a ballot. Liberty also means a free press; freedom to worship-- or not; the rule of law where justice is tempered with mercy; freedom from fear -- of government, criminals or outsiders -- and the freedom to come and go, to speak politically, to work and create wealth.
All of this -- and more -- is what freedom is about. Elections are not the end of the process, just the beginning. That's what's wrong with the argument being waged by some in Congress to start withdrawing American forces from Iraq now that there has been an election. Whether it's the "Arab street," or elsewhere, liberty doesn't march to the beat of a cadence -- it arrives to the sound of many drummers, and impatience is never the friend of freedom.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.