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American independence inspires the Arab Spring

By R. K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress, July 3, 2011)

In celebrating our Independence on July, 4 we would feel even more patriotic if we realized that the American Declaration of Independence has universal significance. I would like to suggest, for example, that it inspired the Arab struggle for independence in the past and is now influencing the revolutionary uprisings for freedom and democracy that are sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.

To begin with, it is essential to understand that from its inception the Declaration’s audience was meant to be the world. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, called it “an instrument pregnant with … the fate of the world.”

Professor David Armitage of Harvard University has shown in his groundbreaking book, “The Declaration of Independence: A Global History,” that the Declaration was born in a global context and its influence has spread across the globe over the past two centuries or so, when more than half of the world’s countries have adopted their own declarations of independence.

The Arabs declared their independence after World War II. They were inspired by the principle of self-determination that strikes deep roots in the American Declaration of Independence, which states “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, free and independent States….”

Like the Americans, some of the Arabs declared their independence against the domination of the British Empire, while others declared theirs against the French Empire. Both Western powers had ruled the Arab Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

Just as the Arabs had been inspired by the American Declaration of Independence in their struggle against foreign domination decades ago, they are, I suggest, inspired today by the American creed in these memorable words: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Millions of young women and men from Libya to Bahrain are protesting against dictatorial rulers. They are demanding democracy, the rule of law, government accountability, elimination of corruption and the protection of human rights.

This is an unprecedented challenge to American foreign policy. It calls on America to live up to its principles and values in support of pro-democracy movements cutting across North Africa and the Middle East.

Washington finds it difficult to pursue a coherent policy in response to the Arab democratic aspirations and expectations of support. The American strategic interests and democratic principles do not always overlap in every country as, for example, in the case of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where an autocratic regime rules a restive population.

Two foreign policy sages of America suggest a guiding principle for dealing with such a dilemma. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker III recommended on April 7 that “[w]e should examine the circumstance in each country in terms of specific conditions and seek to relate its culture and history to strategic and economic interests” of the United States.

The key element in such a recommendation, however, should be knowledge of the culture and history of the countries that are gripped by revolutionary demands for freedom and democracy. No one, I think, has said this better than former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who emphasizes that “the more we know and understand about cultures of those with whom we interact, the more successful our policy will be.”

We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq without knowing much about their cultures, and we are intervening in Libya without knowing enough about the rebels we are trying to support. All this does not seem to promise success.

In spite of the dilemma of incongruity between the American expression of ideals and practices, however, President Obama has done well to set forth boldly the American principled reaction to the Arab Spring.

In his remarks of May 19 on North Africa and the Middle East, he made it clear that the United States supports “universal rights” as a “top priority, not a secondary interest.” He also predicted unequivocally “that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall,” adding “that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.” He imaginatively drew a parallel between the American Revolution and the Arab Spring.

President Obama, however, seems to overemphasize economic development as a means of supporting the Arab aspirations for democracy. As important as economic reforms are, education is the centerpiece of economic development. More important, it is the illiberal nature of education that impedes the Arab majority from understanding genuinely democratic rights and obligations.

I would, therefore, suggest that the Obama administration work with Congress to create a Comprehensive Plan of Liberal Education for Arab societies in North Africa and the Middle East. A plan that would aim, to paraphrase Jefferson, “to develop the reasoning faculties” of Middle Eastern youth, “enlarge their minds, and instill in them the precepts of virtue and order.”

Some of the best and brightest Arab thinkers and leaders have studied in such American-type higher education institutions as the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo. We need many more of them.

About the autor: Holder of the Thomas Jefferson Award and coeditor of two books on Jeffersonian ideas and the contemporary world, R.K. Ramazani serves on the advisory board of Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and is the Edward R. Stettinius emeritus professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

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