The Magic Key

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- What is it about free Arabs that Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and other leading Western officials still do not fully understand or embrace? I am troubled that every few months, we hear a drumroll of anticipation building up to a moment when we are told to expect a defining speech, or a new statement, or another initiative, or just a really heartfelt television interview in which the United States will clearly define its policy towards...well, towards many things -- in fact, towards an entire, ever-changing constellation of moving targets in the Middle East that seem to deeply confound the United States government at the historic moment when Arabs en mass agitate for their own liberty and rights. It is troubling to see those who claim to ring the bell of freedom for all humankind prove hesitant to apply a freedom-promoting and -supporting foreign policy across the entire Arab world.
This is not purely an American issue, to be fair, as Europeans, Turks, and other freedom-loving democrats have also supported the Arab revolts for freedom and citizenship rights with selectivity and serial hesitancy. So what should we make of the fact that we now hear that President Obama will give a major speech this week outlining his country's approach to the Middle East and the wider Islamic world in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden? We will listen to a fine speech once again, one ear cocked towards his speech, the other towards what Arab men and women are doing throughout this region as they fight, suffer and die in the thousands now to achieve the liberty and democracy that Obama and others keep telling us comprise the shared values that unite us all.
Yet Washington's attitude to the Arab Spring reflects a wider problem across much of the Western world that I personally experience daily in my assorted discussions with journalists, officials, diplomats and researchers. It is the same old and ugly problem of double standards in many Western governments' treatment of Arab issues. In this case, the problem is simply that the epic Arab struggle for liberty, rights and dignity is perceived by many abroad as a television drama that is captivating, even thrilling -- but one that remains peculiarly detached from the world of Western powers and, more importantly, remains beyond that realm of people, political movements and social forces that the West can embrace with the same clarity and force with which, for example, it embraced the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. The Arab citizen's right to liberty is neither clear nor consistent in Western eyes. When it approaches the realms of Israel or oil, especially, Arab liberty becomes the victim and ward of greater Western interests.
I believe that Western powers and other global democracies should grasp and act on the basis of two cardinal points now that the Arab Spring has reached a critical turning point. Tunisia and Egypt are transitioning to democracy, Libya and Yemen will do so within months, and struggles with undetermined outcomes are underway in Syria, Bahrain and, to a lesser degree, in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. The first is to appreciate the Arab Spring as a long-term process, and not to recoil and then retrench in the company of known dictators and ruling thugs once the momentum for democratic change slows down. The Arab Spring should be seen like its namesake, the Prague Spring of 1968: a historic outburst of long pent-up demands for citizen rights that finally break through in places but get repressed by a gun-wielding hard state in other places.
The Arab World is like the old Soviet Empire: The Hungarian Revolt in the mid-1950s, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the 1980 Solidarity Movement in Poland, and the Russian dissidents throughout those decades ultimately peaked and broke through in 1989-90 to engineer the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism. That was a gradual but cumulative process, with several springs followed by terrible winters of repression, just as we witness across the Arab world today.
The second point is simply that, of all the alluring attributes of liberty, the most important one is that liberty is indivisible. That should form the foundation of American policy towards the Arabs who fight and die for their rights. President Obama in his speech should not bore or insult us with what we all know and believe in. We don't need lectures on the glory of Islam, or the proud history of Arabs, or the shared benefits of quality education and liberal trade regimes. We don't need lessons on the utility of free elections, accountability or constitutionalism. We don't need diversions into the crazed world of frenzied terrorist cults. We don't need more pussyfooting baby steps by bewildered secretaries of state who ask Arab autocrats to please use a bit less force against their own people.
All we need from powerful Western democracies is a new level of courage, honesty and logical self-interest that allows them to declare openly and unequivocally: liberty is the birthright of all human beings, and the United States supports the absolute and undifferentiated right of all those who struggle for their rights to achieve and enjoy those rights, including Arabs, Iranians, as was the case with the Soviet dissidents back then. Obama should proclaim that Washington will actively assist those who fight for their freedoms, and oppose those who deny such freedoms. He will find that the Arabs and others will then achieve their own liberty, just as the subjugated Soviet victims did.
There is a magic key waiting to be grasped, here, for the joy and wellbeing of all, and it is the simple proposition that freedom is indivisible. Why is that so hard for the self-proclaimed purveyors of freedom to grasp, and to make the core of their foreign policy in the Arab world at a time when millions of Arabs are prepared to fight and die for this simple truth? Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global