What is genuine democracy? What are its foundations, and which beliefs, practices, and associations nourish it? It’s a pressing question for the United States, whose experts were caught flat-footed by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world and whose intelligence agencies, Defense Department, State Department, and National Security Council remain woefully understaffed with officials who know Arabic and understand Islam. We need to understand what is within the competence and commitment of the United States to bring about genuine democracy.

When Muammar Gadhafi threatened to use his armed forces to gun down antigovernment protesters across the country, President Obama at first seemed tongue-tied—at a loss for a clear view of America’s interests in the Libyan uprising and the obligations imposed by American ideals. Yet weeks earlier, his tongue had been freer and his vision clearer. Shortly after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned and transferred his powers to the military, Obama declared that “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”

Genuine democracy, he explained, “means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.” And it must be inclusive: “Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table.”

Such enthusiastic demands were an understandable reaction to the stirring images broadcast around the world from Cairo. It was right and fitting for the president to stand with those demanding an end to authoritarianism and a voice in the making of the laws under which they live. Nevertheless, his rhetoric risked inflating expectations and confusing priorities. With the ground continuing to shift in the Arab world—NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war, the return of influential radical Sunni Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Egypt, the persistent demonstrations in Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere—it’s critical to establish reasonable expectations and clear goals.

Among modern presidents, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush were the most consequential advocates for this defining principle.

Our own constitutional tradition, while uncompromisingly grounding government in the consent of the governed, maintains a lively awareness of the tyranny of the majority. That’s why the founders built into the Constitution substantial limits on government. And that’s why our constitutional tradition teaches that democracy is not the highest aim of politics, but rather the regime best suited to securing individual freedom for all. This is the leading goal of legitimate and lawful government.

Free elections are sometimes not enough to reach that goal. For example, within eighteen months of its victory in the January 2006 Gaza elections determinedly sought by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Hamas staged a bloody coup in which it threw out the rival Fatah movement and forcibly imposed one-party rule. And earlier this year, even as the people of Tunisia and Egypt banished their dictators, Hezbollah dealt a serious blow to the prospects for freedom in Lebanon and stability in the region by unseating a pro-Western prime minister, Saad Hariri, and replacing him with Hezbollah puppet Najib Mikati.

The powerful waves of discontent washing over the Middle East will continue to oblige the White House to focus on long-suppressed Arab demands to determine their own destinies. Meantime, Obama and his team can draw inspiration and guidance from three Oval Office forebears: Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. They are the most consequential advocates among modern presidents for the preservation and extension of democracy and freedom abroad as a defining principle of American foreign policy.

On March 12, 1947, with communism on the march, imposing totalitarian government throughout Eastern Europe, and with Greece and Turkey tottering, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress. Communist aggression, the president declared, had forced the free world into a global struggle between “alternative ways of life.”

President George W. Bush insisted that Middle East freedom must be “a focus of American policy for decades to come.”

In response, Truman announced the doctrine to which his name became attached: “One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.” America should concentrate on creating the material conditions of freedom, which meant providing “economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”

Reagan took up the baton more than three decades later. On June 8, 1982, with intellectual and political elites on the left believing that Western liberal democracies had much to learn from communism about social justice and not a few on the right thinking that in world affairs America should mind its own business, Reagan addressed members of the British Parliament to warn of “threats now to our freedom, indeed to our very existence, that other generations could never even have imagined.” Prominent among them were “global war” in which the use of nuclear weapons “could mean, if not the extinction of mankind, then surely the end of civilization as we know it,” and “the enormous power of the modern state” which, readily abused, worked “to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.”

To defeat these novel threats to freedom, Reagan announced a long-term undertaking “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, and universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” Out of this mandate, which broadened Truman’s understanding of the conditions under which freedom flourished and posed a task Reagan recognized would “long outlive our own generation,” was born the National Endowment for Democracy.

On November 6, 2003, to honor NED’s twentieth anniversary, George W. Bush, addressing the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., became the first U.S. president to focus what he called “the freedom agenda”—an elaboration of the Truman doctrine and the principles Reagan expounded in his speech at Westminster—on the Muslim Middle East. His perspective, like that of Truman and Reagan, looked not merely to the moment but beyond the horizon. Securing and extending freedom in the Middle East, he insisted, must be “a focus of American policy for decades to come.”

The universal claims of human freedom do not dictate a single set of political institutions, Bush observed, but all democracies that protect freedom, he insisted, must conform to certain “vital principles.” They must “limit the power of the state”; establish the “consistent and impartial rule of law”; “allow room for healthy civic institutions—for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media”; “guarantee religious liberty”; “privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property”; “prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people”; “recognize the rights of women”; “and instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.”

Truman, Reagan, and Bush were right.

In proclaiming support for those demanding freedom and democracy in Egypt, Obama aligned himself with a proud American foreign policy tradition with both progressive and conservative roots. He should claim that tradition as his own and reaffirm it. At the same time, and in the same spirit, the president should adopt a long-term perspective. In that way he can contribute to the advancement of democracy abroad by recommitting America to the arduous, gradual, patient work of cultivating the conditions—material, moral, and political—under which freedom flourishes.

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