The Revolt of the Powerless Is Spreading

In the first decade of the new millennium, two brutal regimes in important Muslim countries were brought to an end. In response to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq were overthrown. This important act of liberation took place at the hands of the most powerful military force the world has ever known. These wars were run from sophisticated war rooms tucked away in bunkers in undisclosed locations half a world away. They were executed by unmanned aircraft that appear as if from nowhere to wreak havoc among enemy combatants, by stealth airplanes dropping bunker-buster bombs and by a tangled web of instruments that hunt down individuals using invisible technological signatures. Ending these regimes has cost over one trillion dollars, and has monopolized the time and energy of two American presidents.

At the beginning of this new decade, two more brutal regimes in Muslim countries were overthrown. These were ended by Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable salesman who worked the streets Sidi Bouzid, a city in the center of Tunisia. Tired of mistreatment by security forces, with no hope for a better future and angry at the opulence and corruption of the ruling family, Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building.

The reverberation of Bouazizi's selfish selflessness is still being felt across the world as dictators power up their instruments of repression in an increasingly desperate attempt to quell the revolt of their own powerless. In Bahrain the security forces ambushed protesters sleeping peacefully in Manama square. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi sent his security services with automatic weapons and missiles to end the protest - leaving hundreds of Libyans dead. Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Jordan and Algeria have seen their own protests by their own powerless.

The world, it would seem, has had enough. People across the globe are calling for decades of corruption, censorship, brutality, dictatorship, and suppression of freedoms to give way to a new time. Whether these changes are pregnant with a new "pax humana" or whether the birth of this new world will be aborted or hijacked by the still-powerful has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, tremendous changes have already happened, and more are on the horizon. And it is an unprecedented moment. Now is a time when presidents and senators, dictators and generals -- men with loud names and deep pockets -- must at long last answer the demands of people like Bouazizi, quiet for so long but whose voices now echo with increasing resonance across the world.

And far from being contained, the revolt of the powerless seems to be spreading. In China the communist dictatorship has put its powerful internet filters to work blocking out any mention of a whispered "Jasmine Revolution" calling for protests in thirteen cities across the country. Chinese police have been heavily deployed throughout these cities, and Chinese security has detained and questioned over 100 democracy activists.

The revolt has also made its way to Latin America. In Venezuela, where strongman Hugo Chavez recently celebrated with military opulence his twelve years in power, a group of nine students began a hunger strike outside the office of the Organization of American States (OAS). Now entering its fourth week, the strikers have multiplied to almost one-hundred. Exhausted from years of government abuse and desperate by the lack of prospects for their future in a society increasingly controlled by Chavez and his cronies, the protestors have promised to radicalize their actions until their demands are met. Fully aware of the global realities, the government of Venezuela has said that they are worried about a "virtual Egypt" should the strike extend or become more radical.

All of these dictators are justified in their insomnia. The flames emanating from Bouazizi's desperate plea has sparked a global movement for freedom almost unseen in the history of the world. There is no telling how far the revolt of the powerless will reach.

The Obama administration is in an enviable, if delicate, position. They have the opportunity to empower the protesters to finally remove some of the worst scourges that remain on the planet: ridiculous and dangerous dictators like Moammar Gadhafi, Hugo Chavez and Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Yet just as important as this, an Obama administration that intelligently and creatively manages -- and encourages -- the democratic process can take a leadership role in the formation of a new set of global institutions which are more representative and defend more stalwartly the desires for freedom that are echoing around a hopeful world today. This is a time for bold leadership, for fearless diplomacy and for grand ideas and actions. We have heard a lot from our detractors about the collapse of American influence in the world. Now is the time to prove them wrong. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations last year, now is the time for "...a new American moment." For a country which not too long ago so proudly proclaimed, "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore...", this revolt of the powerless must be the script for our new American moment.