WATERLOO, Ontario — Writing in The New York Times on Aug. 20, 2002, Jeffrey C. Goldfarb quoted an Asian activist’s conviction that “American democracy requires the repression of democracy in the rest of the world.”

This explains why Washington finds itself both behind the curve and on the wrong side of history in struggling to cope with the crisis in Egypt, despite the $1.3 billion annual U.S. stipend since 1979.

The privileging of “our” geopolitical and commercial interests over “their” freedoms and aspirations has been a toxic legacy of wrongheaded Western policies for more than half a century. The face of America in the Arab world today is that of aging autocrats using U.S.-backed and armed security forces to rob and brutalize their own people while presiding over corrupt and rotting political systems.

The postcolonial Arab state was custom-built to serve Western interests: strong enough to keep the restive natives in check and maintain “stability” at home, but too weak to challenge foreign influence and too intimidated to champion the Palestinian cause. The dramatic explosion of pent-up anger in the Arab street means that Washington has to find the right balance among backing popular will, standing by a longtime ally, promoting regional stability, containing the threat to Israel, stopping the spread of Islamist influence and safeguarding economic interests.

The Egyptian uprising is a paradoxical explanation for the intensity of much anti-American sentiment. For it is a forceful reminder of just how powerful is the passion for freedom, how strong the loathing for regimes and rulers who tyrannize their own people, how bitter the feelings toward outside powers who prefer to prop up friendly dictators rather than team up to topple them.

In pursuing short-term tactical policies of buttressing the domestic and regional stability of dictators, successive U.S. governments have betrayed not just the people yearning to overthrow their local tyrants, but also their own ideals.

Mystifyingly, they fail to grasp the power of the metaphor of the shining city on the hill, the hypnotic pull of the ringing American declaration of independence, the stirring inspiration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. These are not just American treasures; they are the common heritage of mankind.

Throughout the former Soviet satellite states in central and eastern Europe, there remains a residue of popular good will toward Americans for the unflagging support for their political aspirations during the dark decades of the Cold War when their destiny was under the Soviet thumb. The world today would have been poorer and sadder if Washington had not helped to bring about an end to their tormentors — from Berlin to Poland, Georgia and Ukraine.

Nor can Washington fairly be asked to assume the burden of changing history for the better in all places all alone.

But the world is also today the poorer and sadder for many because Washington so often compromises ideals for stable relations with autocrats. Other people seek what Americans take for granted: political freedoms, civil liberties, material prosperity, the right to keep legitimately acquired property and wealth rather than have these confiscated by government, and accountability of rulers to the rule of law. They are bewildered and embittered when Washington turns its face away from them so as not to antagonize friendly regimes or strategically important allies.

Much of the anti-American sentiment among Arabs arises not because they hate what America stands for but because they aspire to American values and freedoms that have been systematically crushed on the back of U.S. money, arms and training.

The gap between the lofty, soaring rhetoric of liberty and freedom in President George W. Bush’s second inauguration speech in January 2005 and the reality of his ties to authoritarian regimes was particularly pronounced.

President Barack Obama’s record has been hardly less duplicitous, with his Cairo speech juxtaposed uneasily alongside reduced support for the freedom agenda in Egypt.

From Egypt to Pakistan and beyond, Washington’s problems will not end unless and until U.S. policymakers recognize, and act on the acknowledgment, that dictatorship and military rule is the problem, not a solution, and that democracy based on the rule of law, messy and untidy as it might be, is always preferable to the alternative.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of political Science, University of Waterloo, and an adjunct professor, Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, Australia.

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