Stephen L. Carter: Will America Stand for Arab Freedom?

Syrians protest against Bashar al-Assad. Reuters-Landov

It is autumn now in the Arab Spring. The protests that began last December when a Tunisian street vendor set himself afire have toppled three of the Arab world’s seemingly eternal strongmen and show few signs of abating.

In Western hearts, the Arab Spring has excited admiration but also envy. Commentators have drawn labored and myopic comparisons with Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party. Only in America could we imagine a link between the passing spasms of our electoral politics and the greatest cultural upheaval of the young century, the demand for freedom and democracy by an entire people of whom experts said for decades that authoritarianism was a natural way of life.

Others choose as metaphor the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, another world-shaking political event that took the West by surprise. But the governing parties of the Arab world, although they claim to rule in the name of Islam, are not united by a central ideology. If the strongmen who have fallen and those who yet reign share a common belief, it is in the importance of their own power—and the ability to enrich their inner circles.

Should the passions of the Arab Spring continue unabated, America will face a conundrum. The Obama administration seemed ill at ease in the early days of the protests, undecided, for example, whether it was for Mubarak or against him. The United States seemed to be chasing the news, even though President Obama had declared in Cairo just two years earlier that “government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power.”

The president found his footing with the decision to go to war against Gaddafi. Across the region, other dictators, and other people yearning for freedom, are wondering whether America has the stomach to do it again, or whether our effort to help the Arab Spring along was one final gesture by a superpower pressed by more urgent matters at home.

The Libya intervention, contrary to the fears of its critics, may actually have enhanced America’s reputation around the Mediterranean. In Syria, antiregime demonstrators are carrying signs lauding the death of Gaddafi and promising Assad that he is next. Dissenters in both Syria and Yemen are inviting the American military to take up their cause.

Ironically, the people spilling into the streets of Hama and Sanaa have seen clearly what the administration, for no good reason, continues to obscure. Libya was an American war in which NATO assisted—not the other way around. We provided the drones, the refueling planes, and the cruise missiles, to say nothing of surveillance and command-and-control facilities. Without the United States, Gaddafi would still be running the country. All the Arab world knows this, although the affection in which those demanding freedom now hold the United States may fade as the American presence wanes, especially if our withdrawal from Iraq leaves that struggling young democracy to devolve into a vassal of Iran.

What the Arab Spring has made clear is that slaughter is yesterday’s tool of control. Heartened by the success of the revolutions in North Africa, the protesters in Syria seem less cowed than emboldened by the regime’s violence. Even Assad by now must realize that the Baath Party’s reign may be nearing its end.

In the nations where the mighty have already fallen, we do not know how matters will play out. Tunisia just held free elections. Libya’s new leaders have frightened Westerners with talk of Sharia, but until we know the details, there is no reason for panic: in the abstract, at least, government based on principles of Sharia is analogous to government based on the Ten Commandments. Egypt is a more troubling case: the military remains in charge, and appears increasingly to view internecine violence not as a problem but as a tool.

Still, it is far too early for hand-wringing and second thoughts. Will Rogers once said that freedom works better in speeches than in practice. The Arab world is new to the practice of freedom and, like the rest of us, will make errors along the way. That is no reason not to cheer them on.