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Their Victory, Not Ours

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In an article today for Slate, entitled "America is Freedom, and Freedom is Winning," Eliot Spitzer grandly presents the popular uprisings in the Middle East as vindication of American ideals.

"The revolutions are being led by largely secular thinkers: young educated, and for whom Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are appealing leaders, not Hu Jintao or Muammar Qaddafi," he writes. "We are winning -- despite our errors, flaws, and occasional horrific mistakes."

I share Spitzer's euphoria over the transformation sweeping the region, as I do his conviction that Egyptians, Tunisians and others in the Arab world have no desire to emulate Iranian theocracy or Al Qaeda-esque fundamentalism.

But this is their victory, not ours. It's true that a number of the revolutionaries have professed their admiration for America. It might also be true, as Spitzer argues, that the United States is the best exemplar of a free society the world has ever known. Yet the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose desperate act of self-immolation unleashed the latent yearnings of millions upon their governments, was not motivated by visions of American-style democracy. Nor have been the men and women in the "freedom squares," who have braved beatings, teargas and live fire to register their grievances.

Their quest has been for dignity, a fair shot in life and yes, freedom, but not out of some American civics textbook. The freedom they seek is from the oppression imposed by their former masters -- from the fear of being disappeared by the police, from the need to pay a bribe just to see a family member in the hospital, from emergency laws and sham elections.

Unfortunately, America has long been one of the leading obstacles to that freedom. The values we observe at home -- warrantless wiretapping and the like notwithstanding -- are a far cry from those we have practiced abroad, especially in the Middle East. Our habit of coddling repressive autocrats with financial and diplomatic support in the name of stability has been expounded on enough in recent weeks that I won't get into it here. Needless to say, it's more than a little disingenuous for Spitzer to claim that the overthrow of close American allies vindicates America.

And in the short term, at least, the ongoing changing of the guard in the region is likely to work against U.S. interests. Whatever government emerges in Egypt will surely be less amenable to American influence than Hosni Mubarak. Likewise, it is inconceivable that Yemen's future leader -- should President Saleh's regime fall -- would voluntarily take responsibility for U.S. drone strikes, as Saleh has.

Freedom's ascendancy in the Middle East is indeed good news for anyone who believes in America's founding principles. But let's celebrate on the sidelines where we belong instead of pretending we are freedom incarnate and that every victory for freedom is somehow traceable to American ideals.