Truman, Reagan, and Bush Were Right

In the face of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s use of the armed forces to gun down anti-government protesters across the country, President Obama seems to be tongue-tied and lack a clear view of America’s interest in the uprising and the obligations imposed by American ideals.

Two weeks ago, his tongue was freer and his vision clearer. On February 11, shortly after Vice President Omar Suleiman’s brief televised announcement that Hosni Mubarak had resigned as president of Egypt and his powers had been transferred to the military, President Obama declared at the White House that “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.” It is a heady hope and a just aspiration for the people of Egypt.

But what is “genuine democracy”? What are its foundations? What beliefs, practices, and associations nourish it? And what is within the competence and commitment of the United States — whose experts have been caught flat-footed by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world and whose intelligence agencies, Defense Department, State Department, and National Security Council remain woefully understaffed with officials who know Arabic and understand Islam — to bring it about?

President Obama emphasized elections that conform to the highest standards. Genuine democracy, he explained from the White House, “means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the Constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.” And genuine democracy must be inclusive: “Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table.”

Such enthusiastic demands were, in the moment, an understandable reaction to the stirring images broadcast around the world of jubilant Tahrir Square demonstrators celebrating Mubarak’s ouster. And it is right and fitting for the president of the United States to stand with those demanding an end to authoritarianism and a voice in the making of the laws under which they live.

Nevertheless, President Obama’s rhetoric risked inflating expectations and confusing priorities. With the triumphant return from Qatar to Egypt of influential radical Sunni Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, persisting demonstrations in Bahrain, and civil war in Libya, establishing reasonable expectations and clarifying priorities is critical.

Within 18 months of its victory in the Jan. 2006 Gaza elections determinedly sought by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Hamas staged a bloody coup in which it threw Fatah out of the government and forcibly imposed one party rule. And just last month, even as the people of Tunisia and Egypt banished their dictators, Hezbollah dealt a serious blow to the prospects for freedom in Lebanon and stability in the region by unseating pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri and replacing him with Hezbollah puppet Najib Mikati.

Our own constitutional tradition, moreover, while uncompromisingly grounding government in the consent of the governed, maintains a lively awareness of tyranny of the majority. That’s why the founders built into the Constitution substantial limits on government. And that’s why our constitutional tradition teaches that democracy is not the highest aim of politics, but rather the regime best suited to securing individual freedom for all, the leading goal of legitimate and lawful government.