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The 21st Century's 1989?

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The popular removal of Hosni Mubarak from Tahrir Square last Friday may, sooner or later, signify the demise of dictators in the Arab world much as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 kicked off the collapse of communism. Assuming the demonstrations will lead to democracy, there are some doubtless parallels. As Mark Twain said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." But he also warned that "those who have no sense of history have no eyes and ears." Regardless of the outcome, and before we can make the most of what Senator John Kerry called "an enormous opportunity for the United States and for the world," it would be wise to gain a sense of where we were in order to know where we may be going.

The legacy of 1989 is interpreted as a triumph of American power, in the persona of the posthumously century-old 40th president. "The Gipper" is credited with bringing down the Soviet Union (a military industrial complex with an economy) through the overwhelming industrial, technological, and financial superiority of the United States (an economy with a military industrial complex). Many tout the Reagan doctrine as "peace through strength".

What really brought down the Wall, however, were not the half-million U.S. troops in Central Europe or the arms race that helped bankrupt the Soviets. It was the rising expectations of those imprisoned behind it and the failure of their corrupt regimes to deliver the freedom and prosperity their neighbors to the west enjoyed. The increasingly younger and poorer Arab population's rising frustration with the detached, opulent despotism of those ruling their less disconnected world reached a similar tipping point, when the lie became too obvious. But it was neither Gorbachev who tore down the Wall nor Reagan's exhortations. It was das Volk.

There is much -- but only so much -- the United States can or should do on a day-to-day basis to guide the irrevocable process that's begun. There is, however, much more it can do in realizing that the opportunity Mr. Kerry was talking about was strategic, longer term and bigger picture, in order to get ourselves on the right side of history, and thus be a greater force in the world.

The truth is that the "soft" power of moral persuasion -- the true wellspring of American strength and leadership -- did more to end the Cold War than the "hard" power of military and economic coercion. Now more than then, as Max Boot put it, "the tweet is mightier than the sword." In the "new world order" Reagan's successor proclaimed, the globalized, 24/7 information world has flattened political decision cycles to a constant instant, making it difficult to "think in time" before having to respond, leaving us to lurch even more from one crisis to the next.

But the "tyranny of the inbox," as one National Security Council member terms it, is not so much the result of our brave new world as the gross mismatch of our national security apparatuses, reflecting our Copernican view of a world that we Americans have been largely responsible for shaping. The irony is that America has globalized just about everything but itself.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen's admission that "we didn't see it coming" and CIA Director Leon Panetta's revelation to Congress that, despite an $80-billion a year national intelligence conglomeration, he was also relying on the media to guess what would happen next in Egypt, is yet another indication that the U.S. is woefully structured to exercise what former national security advisor Leon Fuerth calls "forward engagement" -- anticipating and seizing upon opportunities in the global game like Wayne Gretzky played hockey.

In fairness, the surprise of the events in Tunis and Cairo is no anomaly. The "fall" of China, the Soviet bomb, Korea, the Iranian revolution, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Berlin Wall (going up and going down), Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, and of course 9/11 were among many strategic intelligence failures. For a long time, we've been more prepared to respond to military and terrorist threats than exploit the opportunities of popular political upheavals.

Which is precisely the point. The operating software of our foreign and national security policies was originally designed in the 1940s -- and it was already faulty. Because, however, we dominated a world in which the margins of error were far greater, our resources more abundant, and hard power more relevant than it is today, we could get away with it. Now we can't.

So, how can we expect to secure our children's future with our grandparent's government?

Ironically (again), the key to re-shaping our strategic approach may lie in the relationship between soft and hard power in Cold War strategy laid out in NSC-68. In it, diplomacy (not defense) was in the lead, and military power was a holding or enabling action until moral suasion had a chance to facilitate the collapse of the Soviet system under the weight of its self-contradictions through the connective and "corrosive power of freedom" -- which is exactly what happened in 1989.

The fault, more often, has been in the balance of application. Already then we had the "militarization" of foreign policy and the "securitization" of foreign aid. Still, even the Great Communicator eventually placed more faith in soft power than recalled. Of all the quotes in his library, the most revealing is from Joseph Stalin: "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?"

As we reflect on this moment, it is worth remembering our moral power is even more relevant in this century than the last -- our foreign policy and national security structures must finally reflect this. The good news is America is well qualified for this leadership role -- as long as we qualify ourselves. As we have seen, freedom is better promoted through SharePoint than at gunpoint, and the relationships between peoples are more important than between governments. Bush may have broken the eggs in the Middle East, but Obama has the opportunity to help make the omelet. Democracy, however, cannot come about through sheer rhetoric.

Unless we also transform with the times, we risk the same fate of those who clung to their old paradigms -- likewise, with surprise, on the ash heap of history. But if we seize the moment for what it truly is, then the events in Egypt may not be the 21st century's 1989. But, it could be its 2011.

Christopher Holshek, a recently retired Colonel, U.S. Army (Reserve) Civil Affairs, is a Senior Associate at the Project on National Security Reform. His latest publication, "Two Wheels and Two Questions: A journey through America in search of personal and national identity", is available at: http://twowheels.pnsr.org/