Some ancient Chinese philosopher is said to have taught his students that one cannot understand an event simply by attempting to reconstruct a chain of causality leading up to it. Instead, one must immerse oneself in the context, to fully understand the moment in which the event took place. If you get the context right, you can understand what came before and what comes after.
That sort of understanding is important both for historians and leaders.
If that ancient wise man were alive today and were asked to summarize the unique characteristics of this historical moment, he would say “revolution.” We are living in a revolutionary age, that started more than a quarter century ago in Spain after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. At that time, hardly anyone believed it possible to go from dictatorship to democracy without great violence, and most Spaniards feared that the terrible civil war of the 1930s–which ended when Franco seized power and installed a military dictatorship–would begin anew. Instead, thanks to a remarkable generation of political leaders, some savvy priests, and the grossly underrated King Juan Carlos, Spain passed smoothly and gracefully into democracy.
It was the beginning of the Age of the Second Democratic Revolution. Spain inspired Portugal, and the second Iberian dictatorship gave way to democracy. Spain and Portugal inspired all of Latin America, and by the time Ronald Reagan left office there were only two unelected governments south of the Rio Grande: Cuba and Surinam. These successful revolutions inspired the Soviet satellites, and then the Soviet Union itself, and the global democratic revolution reached into Africa and Asia, even threatening the tyrants in Beijing.
The United States played a largely positive role in almost all these revolutions, thanks to a visionary president–Ronald Reagan–and a generation of other revolutionary leaders in the West: Walesa, Havel, Thatcher, John Paul II, Bukovsky, Sharansky, among others.
There was then a pause for a dozen years, first during the presidency of Bush the Elder, who surrounded himself with short-sighted self-proclaimed “realists” and boasted of his lack of “the vision thing,” and then the reactionary Clinton years, featuring a female secretary of state who danced with dictators. Having led a global democratic revolution, and won the Cold War, the United States walked away from that revolution. We were shocked into resuming our unfinished mission by the Islamofascists, eight months into George W. Bush’s first term, and we have been pursuing that mission ever since.
The parallels between the first and second waves of revolution would be very interesting to the Chinese sage. During the Reagan years, the revolution began on the periphery of the major conflict, in Iberia. Following 9/11, the revolution was brought violently to the periphery of the Middle East, in Afghanistan. It swept through Iraq, taking time to liberate Ukraine (against whose independence Bush the Elder spoke so shamefully), and now threatens Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, if not the Syrian regime itself, and has forced the Egyptian and Saudi regimes to at least a pretense of democratic change.
While most of the revolutions have been accomplished with a minimum of armed force, military power has been used on several of the battlefields, and not only in the recent cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is often said that the Cold War was won without firing a shot, but that is false; there was fighting in Afghanistan, and in Grenada, and in Angola. The repeated defeats of Soviet proxies (Angola, Grenada) and the Red Army itself (Afghanistan) were important in shattering the myth that the laws of history guaranteed the ultimate triumph of communism. Once that myth had been destroyed, the peoples of the Soviet Empire lost their paralyzing fear of the Kremlin, and they risked a direct challenge.
In like manner, the defeats of the fanatics in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by free elections in both countries, destroyed two myths: of the inevitability of tyranny in the Muslim world, and of the divinely guaranteed success of the jihad. Once those myths were shattered, others in the region lost their fear of the tyrants, and they are now risking a direct challenge. The Cedar Revolution in Beirut has now toppled Syria’s puppets in Lebanon, and I will be surprised and disappointed if we do not start hearing from democratic revolutionaries inside Syria–echoed from their counterparts in Iran–in the near future.
Many of the brave people in the suddenly democratic Arab streets are inspired by America, and by George W. Bush himself. It should go without saying that we must support them all, in as many ways as we can. Most of that support will be political–from unwavering support by all our top officials, to support for radio and television stations, and tens of thousands of bloggers, who can provide accurate information about the real state of affairs within the Middle Eastern tyrannies, to financial assistance to workers so that they can go on strike–but some might be military, such as hitting terror camps where the mass murderers of the region are trained. We are, after all, waging war against the terrorists and their masters, as is proven by the daily carnage in Iraq and Israel, and the relentless oppression and murder of democrats in Iran.
The president clearly understands this, but, in one of the most frustrating paradoxes of the moment, this vision is rather more popular among the peoples of the Middle East than among some of our top policymakers. For anyone to suggest to this president at this dramatic moment, that he should offer a reward to Iran for promising not to build atomic bombs, or that we should seek a diplomatic “solution” to Syria’s oft-demonstrated role in the terror war against our friends and our soldiers, is a betrayal of his vision and of the Iranian, Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian people. Yet that sort of reactionary thinking is surprisingly widespread, from leading members of congressional committees, from the failed “experts” at State and CIA, and even some on the staff of the National Security Council.
Our most lethal weapon against the tyrants is freedom, and it is now spreading on the wings of democratic revolution. It would be tragic if we backed off now, when revolution is gathering momentum for a glorious victory. We must be unyielding in our demand that the peoples of the Middle East design their own polities, and elect their own leaders. The first step, as it has been in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is a national referendum to choose the form of government. In Iran, the people should be asked if they want an Islamic republic. In Syria, if they want a Baathist state. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Libya, if they want more of the same. We should not be deterred by the cynics who warn that freedom will make things worse, because the ignorant masses will opt for the fantasmagorical caliphate of the increasingly irrelevant Osama bin Laden. Mubarak and Qadaffi and Assad and Khamenei are arresting democrats, not Islamists, and the women of Saudi Arabia are not likely to demand to remain shrouded for the rest of their lives.
Faster, please. The self-proclaimed experts have been wrong for generations. This is a revolutionary moment. Go for it.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.