- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

Across the Middle East, “freedom is on the march.” Certainly, that is the hope and prayer of every American. Is that what we see? In three short years, we have witnessed elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and among the Palestinians. Libya has disavowed and disgorged its nuclear capability. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are making tiny steps toward democracy. Syria has been shamed into withdrawal from Lebanon. While the cost has been considerable, these are major, historic achievements. But do they make the march of freedom inevitable?

Is this, as so many want to believe, the second round of walls falling, hegemonic regimes swiftly collapsing under their own weight, popular uprisings running old leaders out on a rail, giddy crowds raising flags of liberty within a matter of months? Is this Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union falling again? Will we soon speak of a Marshall Plan for the Greater Middle East? Will we see Jeffersonian principles embraced by formerly radical Islamic leaders and once privileged princes?

There is, at this moment, a great temptation to smell on the wind the swift approach of universal freedom. After all, while he never saw the Middle East, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1795, “this ball of liberty… is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe,” adding “at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together.”

On the other hand, 12 years later, Jefferson wrote: “There is a snail-paced gait for the advance of new ideas on the general mind, under which we must acquiesce,” adding that “40 years’ experience of popular assemblies has taught me that you must give them time for every step you take” and, “If pushed too hard, they balk, and the machine retrogrades.” In short, democracy’s advance is unpredictable and not necessarily swift.

Nor is it even certain. Richard Nixon, discussing with Winston Churchill the speed at which democracy might take root in Africa, was warned: “A democracy is the most difficult kind of government to run; it requires years of preparation for a people to be able to handle the problems they face in a free, democratic society.” Nixon held high hopes for the swift advance of democracy in Ghana; Churchill proved prescient.

So where does that leave the Greater Middle East? Is our sacrifice to date sufficient to trigger irreversible change? Are we seeing a region’s accelerated evolution? Is the Middle East inexorably drawn into the vortex of global freedom? Ideally, yes. Realistically, there is more uncertainty ahead than before.

The former Soviet Union was a collapsing economy, not rich in hard currency. Eastern Europe, from Poland and Germany to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, had experience with functional democracy. Literacy was high. A dominant Judeo-Christian ethic tied East to West — and had done so for nearly two millennia.

Western Europe’s economy and lifestyle were the envy of hundreds of millions trapped by totalitarianism. When the cork popped, they spilled rapidly into the West.

Do we see that in the Middle East today? No. Most economies there are self-sustaining. The dominant culture is unfamiliar with democratic institutions, does not revere tolerance, does not treat as self-evident either the civic duties or civil rights enshrined in Western culture, and has no experience with the basic operations — the ebb and flow, give and take — of democratic society. With several notable exceptions, literacy is low, poverty great, the draw of radical Islam ever-present, and resentment of the West, as well as secular institutions, high.

The universal draw of material advancement is strong, but hardly as palpable as between the former communist East and capitalist West. Finally, the means for triggering change in the Middle East has involved more than the triumph of ideas. All this makes the likely evolution longer, not shorter.

The implications are clear. The love of freedom and self-determination are universal. But the grade of this climb, nation by nation, will be steep. There will be more slips, and fewer catches, in the Middle East than in long-prepared Eastern Europe. The allure of living memory should not obscure differences that make this second triumph of freedom harder to secure, longer in coming, and less reflexive.

In Jefferson’s words, we should prepare for the “snail-paced gait,” not the gratifying surge and whoosh that so happily marked the Soviet empire’s fall.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group in Gaithersburg.

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