In March 2005, President George W. Bush used the phrase “freedom is on the march” in reference to Lebanon’s Intifadat-al-Istiqlal uprising against Syria’s heavy influence in their country. Bush was taking credit for the supposed spread of democracy, beginning with the recent Afghani presidential elections and Iraqi legislative elections, which had been cobbled together by U.S.-lead occupying forces, as well as for the Israeli-influenced Palestinian presidential election of January 2005, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s charade of opening up the political process to multiple parties, and even the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution and the 2005 Ukrainian Orange Revolution.
In the same address, Bush stated, “Syria has been an occupying force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and Syria’s support for terrorism remains a key obstacle to peace in the broader Middle East,” calling for the withdrawal of “all foreign forces” from Lebanon and ending with some lofty rhetoric:
“Freedom is the birthright and deep desire of every human soul, and spreading freedom’s blessings is the calling of our time. And when freedom and democracy take root in the Middle East, America and the world will be safer and more peaceful.”
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But just as his declaration of “mission accomplished” was so absurdly premature, so was his confidence in the United States‘ ability to spread freedom’s blessings of a safer and more peaceful world by the forced march of power’s might.
Despite what the West renamed the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon that spring, the people of that country found themselves being collectively punished for the actions of militant Hezbollah by Israeli bombs in the summer of 2006, while violent conflict and civil unrest related to the role of Hezbollah, Israel, and Western influence in that celebrated uprising have continued forward. And now, the conflict in Syria threatens to spill into Lebanon.
Today, Afghanistan appears to be facing a resurgence of the Taliban; Iraq is struggling to rebuild democracy despite all the damage done during the attempted post-invasion oil company takeover of their patrimony; and Palestinian children continue to struggle in the Israeli occupied territories, while the people of Egypt finally ousted their demagogue, no thanks to the long-standing support that the United States gave the Mubarak military regime in exchange for helping Israel enforce its barbaric siege on Gaza. Georgia’s relations with Russia remain very tense after war broke out there in 2009 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Ukraine – where the man whose rigged election as president had lead to the Orange Revolution is now the president – also has tense relations with Russia over natural gas imports.
Founded in 1961 by the idealistic leaders of Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia to promote the independence of developing nations from involvement in the epic Cold War conflict between Western interests and the Soviet Bloc, a shift in the priorities of the Non–Aligned Movement that was precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union can manifest itself in the kind of knee-jerk anti-U.S. sentiment that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has so flamboyantly made his modus operandi, and which Ecuador’s Rafael Correa is playing upon with the Assange asylum situation to gain domestic political points in preparation for upcoming elections.
It is difficult, for instance, to wrap one’s head around the conflict between President Correa making an international show of upholding free speech and the right to Ecuador’s sovereignty, while at home, he has not been very tolerant of free speech and his country might soon be extraditing the political refugee Aliaksandr Barankov to Belarus. Whether the final word from Correa will have been to send Barankov back to one of Europe’s most oppressive regimes or to extend his political asylum status, it will be a delicate balancing act between exhibiting seriousness about protecting free speech and human rights versus the more ingrained tendency toward solidarity with a fellow leader who, in June, visited Correa in Ecuador and signed agreements on education, agriculture, trade, and diplomatic exchange.
The summit in Tehran is slated to showcase such solidarity among the Non–Aligned Movement members against the “arrogance” of the United States and its allies at a key moment in history, with Iran aiming to, in the words of Farideh Farhi, “make a visually forceful case that it is not the ‘global community’ that has problems with the Islamic Republic, as repeatedly asserted by U.S. officials, but only a U.S.-led and pressured coalition of countries.” Iran wants to take advantage of the summit’s focus on nuclear disarmament to assert its right to peacefully develop nuclear energy. Also desiring to prove itself an important player in world events, Iran is claiming to have a solution for the crisis in Syria, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attendance in Tehran is doubtful.
What is not in doubt is the importance of any indication of change in direction of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s foreign policy that might be on display at the summit. Egypt, with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate – a change that strikes fear into the hearts of the Islamophobic and negates the narrative of Israel as democracy’s single ambassador in the region – represents the principle that true freedom doesn’t march into a country from outside; rather, it must come from real grassroots, internally motivated, democracy-craving change. And despite the same charges of Western meddling having brought about Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising also having been made against the revolutionary movements in the other countries that have participated in the Arab Spring’s sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, in the end, the 120 nations in this group that includes such squabblers as India and Pakistan, Colombia and Venezuela, and Iraq and Iran are keenly aware of the importance of looking beyond suspicions and differences for the purpose of coming together to show the strength of cooperation in a more egalitarian forum than the U.S.-dominated United Nations provides.
So rather than condemning United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for attending the summit in Tehran, as the United States and Israel have done, he should be applauded for his leadership in recognizing that resistance to change by trying to isolate or delegitimize those who would like to see less polarization in the world’s power structure is not only unconstructive but futile.
Note: All nations mentioned in this article except Georgia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Russia, Israel, and the United States of America are current members of the Non-Aligned Movement.