For decades, the Arab states have seemed exceptions to the laws of politics and human nature. While liberty expanded in many parts of the globe, these nations were left behind, their "freedom deficit" signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies. In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:
"Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?"
The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment.
So a new set of questions becomes critical. What lesson will Arab regimes learn? Will they undertake the steady reforms that may bring peaceful change, or will they conclude that exiled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by failing to shoot and club enough demonstrators? And will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows - and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.
The regimes of Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak proffered the same line to Washington: It's us or the Islamists. For Tunisia, a largely secular nation with a literacy rate of 75 percent and per capita GDP of $9,500, this claim was never defensible. In fact, Ben Ali jailed moderates, human rights advocates, editors - anyone who represented what might be called "hope and change."
Mubarak took the same tack for three decades. Ruling under an endless emergency law, he has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques. Mubarak in effect created a two-party system - his ruling National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood - and then defended the lack of democracy by saying a free election would bring the Islamists to power.
Of course, neither he nor we can know for sure what Egyptians really think; last fall's parliamentary election was even more corrupt than the one in 2005. And sometimes the results of a first free election will find the moderates so poorly organized that extreme groups can eke out a victory, as Hamas did when it gained a 44-to-41 percent margin in the Palestinian election of 2006. But we do know for sure that regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now.
"Angry Friday" brought tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets all over the country, demanding the end of the Mubarak regime. The huge and once-feared police forces were soon overwhelmed and the Army called in. Whether it will not only deploy but actually fire on demonstrators to defend the Mubarak regime remains to be seen. Even if these demonstrations are crushed, Egypt has a president who will be 83 at the time of this fall's presidential election. Every day Hosni Mubarak survives in power now, he does so as dictator propped up by brute force alone. Succession by his son Gamal is already a sour joke, and one must wonder whether Egypt's ruling elites, civilian and military, will wish to tie their future to Hosni Mubarak rather than seeking a new face.
The three decades Hosni Mubarak and his cronies have already had in power leave Egypt with no reliable mechanisms for a transition to democratic rule. Egypt will have some of the same problems as Tunisia, where there are no strong democratic parties and where the demands of the people for rapid change may outstrip the new government's ability to achieve it. This is also certain to be true in Yemen, where a weak central government has spent all its energies and most of its resources simply staying in power.
All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's "freedom agenda" as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force. Consider what Bush said in that 2003 speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution established by President Ronald Reagan precisely to support the expansion of freedom.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
This spirit did not always animate U.S. diplomacy in the Bush administration; plenty of officials found it unrealistic and had to be prodded or overruled to follow the president's lead. But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right - and that the Obama administration's abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.
U.S. officials talked to Mubarak plenty in 2009 and 2010, and even talked to the far more repressive President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but they talked about their goals for Israeli-Palestinian peace and ignored the police states outside the doors of those presidential palaces. When the Iranian regime stole the June 2009 elections and people went to the streets, the Obama administration feared that speaking out in their support might jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. The "reset" sought with Russia has been with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, not the Russian people suffering his increasingly despotic and lawless rule.
This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the administration's approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. "Engagement" has not been the problem, but rather the administration's insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.
If the Arab regimes learn the wrong lessons and turn once again to their police and their armies, the U.S. reaction becomes even more important. We cannot deliver democracy to the Arab states, but we can make our principles and our policies clear. Now is the time to say that the peoples of the Middle East are not "beyond the reach of liberty" and that we will assist any peaceful effort to achieve it - and oppose and condemn efforts to suppress it.
Such a statement would not elevate our ideals at the expense of our interests. It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us, that supporting freedom is the best policy of all.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.