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In Perspective: Jon Meacham on the crisis in Egypt

Precisely 18 months ago, on June 4, 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo — that “timeless city,” as he called it — to address the Islamic world. Committed to “governments that reflect the will of the people,” the president called on those in power to “govern with respect for all their people.”

He acknowledged the great gap between those words and reality. There are some, he said, “who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.” When I heard that back then, I thought of Samuel Johnson’s biting line about the hypocrisy of white Americans during the revolution: “How is it,” Dr. Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The crisis in Egypt is rife with perennial tensions. For Americans, it’s a reminder of our checkered history with friendly authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. From the beginning of the republic, American foreign policy has been governed by American self-interest more than American ideals. From the Philippines to Iran to the Congo to Nicaragua to South Africa, we’ve protected dictators we’ve found useful. Hosni Mubarak has long been a member of that club, a leader rewarded by Washington for his ability to maintain order in a strategically critical nation.

But authoritarian regimes around the world should take careful note of Mubarak’s fate. Once they do, they may well be moved to address the concerns of their people and undertake real reforms before the passions of the Cairo crowds spread to their own streets and squares even more than they already have.

Meanwhile, America’s foreign-policy establishment should use all the means at its disposal — and those are formidable means — to encourage such reforms, while the images from Cairo are fresh. And this is the time for American officials to make the case that democratic sentiment is an irresistible force in human affairs.

We do not yet know whether the fall of Mubarak will lead to an Egypt — and a wider region — congenial to U.S. interests. But we do know this: the events in Egypt — and in Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen — prove anew that John Milton was right when he wrote that “no man … can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free.” That was President Obama’s message 18 months ago. It’s true today. And it’ll be true tomorrow, in Egypt and everywhere else.

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