The powerful waves of discontent still washing over the Middle East will oblige the White House to keep its attention focused on the long-suppressed demands among Arab peoples to determine their own destinies. President Obama and his team can draw inspiration and guidance from the three most consequential advocates among his modern Oval Office predecessors of the preservation and extension of democracy and freedom abroad as a defining principle of American foreign policy.
On March 12, 1947, with Communism on the march imposing totalitarian government throughout eastern Europe, and with Greece and Turkey tottering, President Harry S. Truman addressed a joint session of Congress. Communist aggression, the president declared, had forced the free world into a global struggle between “alternative ways of life.”
In response, Truman announced the doctrine to which his name became attached: “One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.” America should concentrate on creating the material conditions of freedom, which meant providing “economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”
On June 8, 1982, with intellectual and political elites on the left believing that Western liberal democracies had much to learn from Communism about social justice and not a few on the right thinking that concerning world affairs it was best for America to mind its own business, President Ronald Reagan addressed members of the British Parliament to warn of “threats now to our freedom, indeed to our very existence, that other generations could never even have imagined.” Prominent among them were “global war” in which the use of nuclear weapons “could mean, if not the extinction of mankind, then surely the end of civilization as we know it,” and “the enormous power of the modern state” which, readily abused, worked “to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.”
To defeat these novel threats to freedom, Reagan announced a long term undertaking “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” Out of this mandate, which broadened Truman’s understanding of the conditions under which freedom flourished and posed a task Reagan recognized would “long outlive our own generation,” was born the National Endowment for Democracy.
On Nov. 6, 2003, to honor NED’s twentieth anniversary, President George W. Bush, addressing the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., became the first U.S. president to focus what he called “the freedom agenda” — an elaboration of the Truman Doctrine and the principles Reagan expounded in his speech at Westminster — on the Muslim Middle East. His perspective, like that of Truman and Reagan, looked not merely to the moment but beyond the horizon. Securing and extending freedom in the Middle East, he insisted, must be “a focus of American policy for decades to come.”
The universal claims of human freedom did not dictate a single set of political institutions, Bush observed, but all democracies that protect freedom, he insisted, must conform to certain “vital principles.” They must “limit the power of the state”; establish the “consistent and impartial rule of law”; “allow room for healthy civic institutions — for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media”; “guarantee religious liberty”; “privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property”; “prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people”; “recognize the rights of women”; “and instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.”
Truman, Reagan, and Bush were right.
In forthrightly proclaiming support for those demanding freedom and democracy in Egypt, President Obama aligned himself with a proud American foreign policy tradition, with both progressive and conservative roots. He should claim that tradition as his own and, in the face of Gaddafi’s war against the Libyan people, reaffirm it. At the same time, and in the spirit of that tradition, the president should adopt a long-term perspective, contributing to the advancement of democracy abroad by recommitting America to the arduous, gradual, patient work of cultivating the conditions — material, moral, and political — under which freedom flourishes.