- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2011

Al Qaeda fighters have declared an Islamic emirate in northeast Libya and the leader of that North African nation, Muammar Gadhafi, is reportedly on the run. It might soon be time for the Marines to revisit the shores of Tripoli.

A group of al Qaeda fighters in the eastern Libyan port city of Derna has declared the Islamic Emirate of Barqa, recalling the ancient name for the area. Derna was famous as one of the havens of the Barbary Pirates, and was captured by U.S. Marines in 1805 - the first victory of American arms abroad. While this new al Qaeda conquest may prove to be short-lived, the incident underscores what’s at stake in the chaos erupting in the region. The people in the streets protesting against tyrants are not necessarily fighting for freedom.

In some respects the wave of revolution sweeping the Middle East is reminiscent of the stirring events of 1989 in Eastern Europe, when “people power” overwhelmed communist dictatorships, replacing an oppressive regime with systems based on a respect for freedom. In those heady days there was reasonable hope that as country after country fell, the new governing authorities would be dedicated to securing and promoting the same kind of fundamental rights that Americans enjoy. 

The situation in the Middle East today is as different as the vast cultural divide that separates their civilization from our own. It is a division rooted in history, custom, religion and politics. The rights that Americans regard as sacred are of little importance in the Mideast. Some rights, like equality between the races and sexes, are considered inconvenient. Others, like the democratic process and free speech, are unfamiliar. Still others, like freedom of worship, are considered heresy.

The Obama administration avoids the issue by refusing to state that it would be preferable if the Mideast revolutions ended with the establishment of western-style governments. The thinking apparently is that if the United States presses for a particular outcome it will be called “imperialism” and strengthen the hand of the Muslim extremists. There’s no doubt that the radical factions will accuse those with more secular, pro-western orientation of being in the service of the imperialists, regardless of what the United States does. By consciously adopting a disinterested posture, the president abrogates leadership and underscores American weakness. Mr. Obama brags about having “calibrated” the American response just right, but he is undercutting the secular forces that could lead the region to a better future.

The president of the United States has a duty to promote the principles of an open society dedicated to the prosperity of its people, especially when it means standing against the erection of Islamist states dominated by hard-line Shariah law. Instead, the administration seems more interested in accommodating hard-line groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, than lending moral support to secular parties. Others question whether a fully Islamist Middle East is even a bad thing. PBS host Tavis Smiley argued Friday on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that Americans have no basis for criticizing the culture of the Middle East because “when we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if somehow we treat women better in this country, it demonizes Muslims.” Mr. Maher rightly called this cultural relativism, and added, “I’m judging. They’re worse. What’s wrong with just saying that?”

There is nothing wrong with the United States helping the people of the region realize a future free of oppression from either mosque or state. Unless Mr. Obama believes otherwise, he ought to have no problem in stating clearly that our system of government is better for the people of the Middle East.