Thu February 10, 2011

The Messy Failure Of The Freedom Agenda

Jennifer Wiens is a writer and TV producer.

The Middle East is stuffed to the brim with dictators and monarchies, unhappy protesters and brutal police, civil wars, religious conflicts and the lingering debris of foreign invasions. It's a sloppy chaotic mess, like one of those hoarder's houses on TV; if you look at it too long, you just want to dive in and start cleaning up.

When George W. Bush was president, he couldn't resist that temptation. Through all the various explanations given and then discarded of why the U.S. was in Iraq, only one reason survived: Iraq needed to be a democracy. It was a country whose crazed dictator messiness could spread danger to other places; it needed to be scrubbed down and remade as a free and clean system of government. And just maybe, if one room of the Middle East's house could be cleaned, other countries might see how nice it was and join in the make over.

But ask anyone who works with hoarders and they'll all tell you the same thing; you can't change the behavior by force. Sure, you can lock the hoarder out of their house while you forcibly throw away the trash. Yet once the hoarder is free again they'll start piling up the wreckage once more. Come back in a few years, and it will be the same old mess.

The other way to cure the problem is to have the hoarder actually tackle the issue themselves, to see how they are trapped by their own debris, and to want to make a change. This way is slower, less dramatic. No clean sweep, no "ta da" moment as the overly-helpful cleaner unveils a sparkling room. But it's more meaningful.

That's what we are seeing in Cairo; the chaotic push and pull of millions of Egyptians deciding to clean their own country's mess up. Maybe it will work, maybe not. Maybe once the disarray of a shoddy presidency and its secret police are cleared away, new problems and issues will be uncovered. But it's the Egyptian people who will deal with that.

Because barging in, Bush-style, to someone else's house, no matter how good the intention, is rarely the right thing to do. After all, Iraq is still struggling, years later. Meanwhile, events in Egypt and Tunisia show democracy may indeed be spreading in the Middle East now, just as Dubya wanted. But it's coming from the people actually living there, from the floor up, not from outside in. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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