What an amazing month it has been in key corners of the Muslim world. Accelerated by Twitter and Facebook, and broadcast to the world through television and YouTube, revolutionaries in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and especially Egypt have agitated for freedom and demanded political reform.
I wonder how the news is being received by former president George W. Bush. Some of his former deputies are claiming that the changes unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa validate Mr. Bush's foreign policy doctrines and his oft-repeated mantra that freedom isn't America's gift to the world but God's gift to humanity.
Readers can decide how much America or God figure into the calculus. And stripped of its warrants, Mr. Bush's core sentiment is unassailable: Does anyone really want to argue that only some people are entitled to live and breathe freely?
Articulating such sentiments is inspiring but easy. The trickier task for the United States is deciding whether, and how, to use our nation's power — economic, cultural, political and, yes, sometimes even military — to turn an easily articulated promise into a tangible reality for nations still run by the bullet rather than the ballot.
Mr. Bush's implementation of his doctrine was counterproductive, expensive and deadly. The Iraq War was a disaster, a superpower's folly built upon a carefully constructed artifice of deception, hubris and fear-mongering constructed by Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their political and media allies. The thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead; the hundreds of thousands more who have been displaced or permanently wounded; and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent — these costs might have been worthwhile had a truly organic democracy emerged in Mesopotomia.
But organic democracies do not result from invasion, even if that invasion is led by the world's oldest democracy. Real democracies must emerge on their own. Outside governments can help set favorable conditions for revolution and provide resources and ideas to revolutionaries. But the nature of democracy — which literally means rule by the people — is that people who want self-rule must assert that right for themselves. Nation-building has to be a bottom-up, not top-down, exercise.
To that end, the United States excels when we serve as a credible democratic example for others to imitate. We succeed by leading with our ideas via the State Department, which spends billions not merely on diplomacy but on educating elites and masses alike in nondemocratic states on the meaning of citizenship, the importance of a free press, and the merits of federalism. In this capacity, America earns and reinforces its image as a beacon for democracy.
But the United States loses credibility when we lead with our fists via the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other military or quasi-military arms of the government. In Latin America and Southeast Asia in the last century, and the Muslim world this century, America has opened itself up to legitimate complaints that we are meddlers, if not bullying imperialists.
What's new and fascinating about the current revolutions is how the United States contributes through innovation and technology. Although none were created with the intent of fomenting political tumult abroad or expanding democracy's reach across the globe, the television, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are all American inventions. It's stunning, even humbling, to consider that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may end up doing more to secure peace and expand democracy across the globe than Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, George Schultz, James Baker, Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton ever could.
But so what? If democracies emerge organically thanks as much to the genius of social networkers as the diplomatic skills of secretaries of states, then protecting cell phone towers and Internet signals may be as important as defending borders and sea lanes. Autocrats desperately trying to suppress popular insurrections are discovering that ideas are harder to kill than people. People yearn to be free, and so does information.
President Bush was right that America has a special duty as the premier guardian of democracy whenever and wherever it emerges. The United States should echo and amplify the voices of democratic revolutionaries, help negotiate the removal of despots and autocrats, and provide local or regional security for democratic insurgents to solidify their gains.
But guardian is not the same as instigator. Hearts and minds cannot be "won" by outsiders — and they can be lost.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.