The professor's grasp of the profundity of what has happened these past two months boils down to one core point, one that seems bizarrely beyond some of the more, shall we say, parochial responses:
There is no overstating the importance of the fact that these Arab revolutions are the works of the Arabs themselves. No foreign gunboats were coming to the rescue, the cause of their emancipation would stand or fall on its own. Intuitively, these protesters understood that the rulers had been sly, that they had convinced the Western democracies that it was either the tyrants’ writ or the prospect of mayhem and chaos.
So now, emancipated from the prison, they will make their own world and commit their own errors.
What will it take for Washington's elite to understand that this is not about America? Mercifully, perhaps because of his unique background, Obama grasps this. Those trapped in old paradigms - like Wieseltier and Wolfowitz - are doubtless genuine and admirable in their concern about wanton killings by the Libyan dictator. But they do not seem yet to grasp - even after Iraq - that freedom is only freedom when you have won it on your own.
And a confession. For years, like many conservatives, I had become convinced that culture truly does matter and that culture would prevent the Arab world from ever developing the kind of democracy that exists in the West. The Persians and Jews and Turks and Kurds were different, I thought. The Arabs? Too tribal; too divided; too religious. Ajami reminds us that this narrative was favored by the Arab tyrants themselves and protected their interest. It was also favored by Israel, as a buttress to its case for open-ended colonialism in its own backyard.
What I failed to grasp is that culture changes, that the younger generation, as in Iran, were increasingly aware, thanks to the new media revolution, of how backward their own societies had become. Culture still matters, mind you; and I am not optimistic about what might end up in power in Libya, and remain wary of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. But this is a process - and it may be happening faster now than before. We have surely learned to be humbler in our generalizations.
What took place, after all, in the cradle of democracy, Britain, before it became what it has become? (Sorry, America, but parliamentary democracy, and its core rationale, was born elsewhere). Huge religious conflict, a bloody civil war ending in the execution of the monarch, a fundamentalist dictatorship under Cromwell, another revolution in 1688, followed by three centuries of development and adjustment and war. And this was with the benefit of being on an island, with no standing domestic army and a weak royalty and strong aristocracy going back to the thirteenth century. I remain steeped in this history - and, while acknowledging its share of crimes and atrocities - proud of it. Because it was mine; because I fully identified with its national origins.
We in the West, in other words, are proud of and attached to our liberties because we and our forefathers grasped them for themselves. This mix of patriotism and liberty is vital and necessary. To have freedom imposed is to create chaos and resentment. To have the people grasp it for themselves is to expand the horizons of a stable democracy. There will be failures and successes. But Ajami is right. We should do all we can to assist if asked. But this is their moment, not ours, their countries, not ours, and it is time to let go of the neurotic need to control the entire world and to force it into our own ideological templates. It is time to watch and listen and engage and support. It is not time to intervene.