Sometimes the day-to-day gloom causes us to miss the big picture. Let’s face it—the day to day has been pretty gloomy: China booming, our economy stagnant; jobs scarce; educational performance flagging behind countries whose names used to be punch lines; Wall Street bonuses hitting record levels, as are foreclosures, bank failures, bankruptcies, and the poverty rate.
But freedom is winning. That freedom that we stand for as no other nation ever has—or probably ever will—is knocking down autocrats and monarchs. The ideal we have been cherishing for more than 200 years—imperfectly and selectively, hesitantly at times, overbearingly at others—is gaining in regions we never thought it would penetrate.
Over the past few weeks, Americans have agonized over our less-than-nimble reaction to the revolutions that have swept from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Libya and beyond. Yes—we have been too wedded to our autocratic allies to see how frail their stability was. And yes, our intelligence services have been an embarrassment—fabricating to cover up what they didn’t know. But that is the history of supposed “intelligence” services through history—standing with the status quo because it is easier than doing the hard work of understanding what is really going on.
And no, nobody really could reasonably have predicted this democratic wildfire. As Monty Python said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” And no, we don’t know for sure how any of this will turn out.
But, all that said, freedom is winning! And I would sure rather be a democratic United States welcoming the free flow of information, ideas, and discourse right now than a China trying to cordon off Internet reports of dislocation in the Middle East.
Why is the Middle East turning upside down right now? The smartest minds hypothesize that young, well-educated populations, connected to the world through social media, and tantalized by the rising yet dashed expectations that emerge from access to the rest of the world and the ideas of the modern era, have created a combustible environment. But still, nobody would have predicted that all this would have been ignited by the single match of self-immolation in Tunisia. Whatever the cause, freedom is sweeping in. And this is good news, bigger than most of what we focus on.
In the conversations I have had with Egyptians and Tunisians and others in the midst of the revolutions—what has emerged is a genuine admiration for the principles the United States stands for. Not a glassy-eyed belief that our foreign policy hasn’t been flawed and tilted and at times corrupted by a desire for short-term stability over a principled pursuit of freedom. But still—there is no desire to emulate Iran’s autocratic rule; no admiration for China’s rigid refusal to permit freedom, no pretense of an admiration for the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Whatever critiques people in the Middle East may level at the United States, they feel that we do stand taller than any other nation when it comes to the single fundamental principle of freedom. The revolutions are being led by largely secular thinkers: young, educated, and for whom Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are appealing leaders, not Hu Jintao or Muammar Qaddafi. We are winning—despite our errors, flaws, and occasional horrific mistakes.