When ex-President Bush watches the extraordinary pro-democracy protests in Egypt he may wish he had waited just a few months longer before publishing his presidential memoirs.
His father was at the helm as Communist dictatorships tumbled across Europe, and he must wonder if his strident calls for freedom in the Arab world – and his installation of fledgling democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan – helped inspire those who took the world by surprise when they took to the streets.
His 2005 inaugural speech set out a lofty vision for the spread of democracy: “Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfil, and would be dishonourable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.
“And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well – a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
US Democrats – many of whom would argue Bush’s Middle East policies were characterised by unmitigated disaster – can point to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech as a hymn to human rights delivered in an Islamic context with humility.
Did these words stir the hearts of the people of Tunisia and Egypt?
“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed... Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
“There is no straight line to realise this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.
“Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
Despots may attribute the agitation not to American leadership but to the dangerous cultivation of an educated middle class. This could encourage dictators to decide that enlightenment is an enemy of their rule.
With good reason, there are also worries about the monsters which could emerge in a power vacuum. Many Iranians hoped their 1979 revolution would lead to democracy, not theocracy.
But for this moment at least, even amidst the gunshots and stone-throwing, hopes of freedom soar as tyrants tremble.
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