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Obama's Woodrow Wilson Moment

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It's time for America to hit the re-set button with the Arab world. As citizens from Algiers to Amman take to the streets to protest autocratic governments, Americans must realize that for too long we have misunderstood and underestimated the peoples of the Arab world.

For decades, U.S. administrations have forged strong relationships with Arab leaders willing to carry out U.S. interests in the region, at any cost. In turn we have helped guarantee their survival with large amounts of economic and military aid. Slowly, however, the Obama administration seems to be recognizing that the future of the Arab world, and ultimately U.S. interests lie not with aging despots, but in meeting the legitimate demands of citizens whose voices we've long ignored.

Given that our enduring relations will be with the youth of the Arab world, today's call by President Obama for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to refrain from running in Fall elections is highly significant. The president has been urged by some, including Israeli leaders, not to abandon "friends" like Mubarak. Their fear is that regime change could lead to the rise of anti-American Islamists hostile to Israel.

However, this fear ignores surprising and unexpected developments in the region. A moderate, non-ideological, pro-democratic Arab voice is emerging. Now is the time to defend this voice and in so doing help advance democracy in the Arab world.

In the context of unfolding events in Egypt and throughout the region, Woodrow Wilson offers an important lesson. In 1918, he gave his famous '14 points of light' speech, calling for sovereignty for the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire -- the Arabs. He was the first U.S. president in history to call for Arab freedom and in doing so angered our allies, England and France, who had plans to carve up the former Ottoman Empire into British and French mandates.

In response, President Wilson became the hero of the Arab world, which translated for decades into a love of everything American -- from our educational system, to American culture and political values. My grandfather, a professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut at the time, recalled in his diaries deep Arab admiration for America, and in my years of reporting in the Arab world I sometimes met elderly Arabs who remembered that period with great nostalgia.

Clearly the U.S. has since lost that love. Can it be regained?

The Arab world of today is not the Arab world of the '80s and '90s, when many viewed political Islam as the solution to what was even then unbearable state repression and economic stagnation. For the past decade, the Arab world has been undergoing a social sea change thanks to the advent of satellite TV, the Internet, and other digital media. It has given young Arabs a glimpse into other worlds -- a view denied their parents by a tightly controlled Arab state media. This new outlook has underscored for many Arabs just how developmentally and politically deprived they have been.

Additionally, many Arabs seem to have realized that the wave of political Islam that swept the Middle East in the wake of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, promising change, has brought them little of benefit. How else can one explain the absence among Egyptian protestors of the Muslim Brotherhood's most famous slogan, "Islam is the solution," in the very birthplace of political Islam?

Contrary to what our Arab allies have long warned against, protestors on the streets of Cairo, Amman, Tunis and Sana'a are not calling for an Islamist state, an end to ties with Israel, or an immediate rupture with the U.S.. Rather, their demands are universal -- an end to oppression and corruption, better governance, access to jobs and the right to live with dignity.

The Arab world's first popular revolution is largely absent of ideology. That's no surprise, since Arab leaders and parties have long used ideology -- be it Arab nationalism, communism or radical Islamism -- to whip up and manipulate emotions, often to divert attention from their own failed leadership. But the people have seen through the ruse. As one Egyptian protestor was quoted as saying, "The days of ideology are over... People are simply looking for their personal freedom, for food, education, a good life."

We should recognize this new trend and harness its energies. Admittedly, it's risky for the U.S. to be seen as interfering in what unfolds. But given America's longstanding influence in the Middle East, it is well-placed to play a constructive role by encouraging its allies to start taking the first steps toward democracy, as the Obama administration did today.

Considering the likely spread of protests elsewhere in the Arab world, the U.S. does not want to be on the wrong side of history. We can no longer afford to waffle between endorsing protestors' legitimate demands and backing our long-time allies. Not only would that be profoundly hypocritical, given our support of democracy movements worldwide; worse, it would risk derailing a future generation of young, democratic Arabs who could well steer the Arab world into a period of unprecedented moderation, growth and stability, after more than a half century of war and violence.

There is indeed much to worry about during this period of unprecedented change. Democratization is a messy process. Yet in the long run, while Arab voices may not always echo U.S. or Israeli interests, let's not underestimate their potential. After all, a democratic, pluralistic Middle East aligns perfectly with our desire for a peaceful and prosperous region. Indeed, this could be Obama's Woodrow Wilson moment.

Kate Seelye is the Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Prior, she covered the Middle East for NPR, PBS, the BBC and the UK's Channel 4 TV for nine years from her base in Beirut. Her American family has lived and worked in the Arab world for five generations as missionaries, educators, diplomats and journalists.