Democratic revolutions in the Middle East have forever disproved the "idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression," said former President George W. Bush, who discussed the significance of freedom and democracy Tuesday during a rare speech in Washington, D.C.
"In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism," Bush told a standing-room-only crowd of democratic dissidents, members of Congress, and former members of "the mighty Bush Administration."
"Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible," the former president said, referring to pro-democracy upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere.
Nearly four years since Bush left the Oval Office, human beings around the world find themselves with a growing thirst for freedom—a desire that is routinely quashed by brutal tyrants in the Middle East, Russia, China, and elsewhere.
Bush decried an American foreign policy that behaves with deference and timidity towards rulers from the old authoritarian guard.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change—particularly in the Middle East and North Africa—and find the dangers too great," Bush said in what may have been a veiled shot at President Obama’s policy of "leading from behind."
"America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
America does not have the luxury of choosing whether "a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere," Bush explained. "It only gets to choose what side it is on," and America’s "message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom—and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone."
Passivity is not a realistic option for the U.S., Bush said, because the pursuit of freedom demands sustained engagement.
"Our goal should be to help reformers turn the end of tyranny into durable, accountable civic structures," he said. "This work will require patience, creativity, and active American leadership."
The country’s policy choices must also remain consistent, he noted.
"Change comes at different paces in different places. Liberty often arrives not in leaps, but in steps. Yet flexibility does not mean ambiguity," Bush said, in what some interpreted as a veiled reference to Obama’s much-criticized "hot mic" moment with former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. "The same principles must apply to all countries."
Bush, who was in D.C. to debut a collection of interviews with international advocates of freedom for a project sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, made a lighthearted reference to his own pursuit of freedom.
"I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington," he joked. "But it is good, on occasion, to be back and to see old friends."
Former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams, who attended the speech, noted that he was reminded of "how far support for what Bush used to call the ‘Freedom Agenda’ had slipped in today’s Washington."
"Bush’s own speech recalled the themes of his Second Inaugural Address but updated it for the ‘Arab Spring,’" Abrams wrote in the Weekly Standard following the address. "His visit was a reminder that ‘active American leadership’ of this cause is critical, and of how much it is missed."
Attendees of the event were also treated to a question-and-answer session with the former Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of two decades under house arrest for her efforts to reform the oppressive Burmese political establishment.
Suu Kyi explained that while progress is being made toward a new, more democratic Burmese government, there is still a ways to go.
"There’s still 271 prisoners on that list [of reformers] who’ve not yet been released" by the government, Suu Kyi said in response to a question from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. "We’d like to know why there are 271 who have not been released. …There should be no political prisoners in Burma if we really are heading to" democracy and political reform, she said.
Asked how the world can help besieged Syrian freedom fighters end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Suu Kyi responded, "If there were an easy answer to this question, I think Syria would be at peace now."
She added, "At this moment, I’d like to say to the people of Syria, ‘We are with you in your desire for freedom and your struggle for freedom.’ "
Suu Kyi also advocated in favor of the U.S. suspending its economic sanctions on Burma.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization, but if it is not maintained, we’ll have to think of other ways" to spur further democratic reform.
"I am not against the suspension of sanctions," so long as U.S. leaders agree. "I do caution, though, I sometimes think people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma. We can never look upon it as irreversible."