President George W. Bush predicted Tuesday that the remaining authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are unsustainable and will give way to movements driven by the quest for freedom and human rights.
"These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom," Bush said in Tuesday morning remarks. "In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever."
Bush was speaking at an event to celebrate and publicize the "Freedom Collection," a set of artifacts from democratic struggles around the world, collected by the George W. Bush Institute, run by former magazine editor and State Department official James Glassman.
Bush cautioned that there were risks to democratic change and that sometime overthrowing authoritarian regimes leads to periods of instability, but argued that American had to always support those fighting against oppression.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change -- particularly in the Middle East and North Africa -- and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign-policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
In a return to the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address, Bush said that America's role in each country undergoing change in the Arab world will be different but that the United States must always side with people against dictators and should do everything it can to help emerging democracies build civic institutions and a pluralist political culture.
"America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case," he said. "But America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom -- and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone. The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious."
Bush was introduced by Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria," Bush said to him, joking, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington."
Chinese activist Bob Fu spoke after Bush. He was followed by Laura Bush, who introduced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who answered questions live via Skype.
Suu Kyi said that while she favored a non-violent approach to confronting dictatorships, she understood that the Syrian people had no choice but to meet the government's violence with violence of their own.
"We should all help people's struggle for freedom around the world," she said. "I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom."
Suu Kyi will soon go on her first trip abroad in 24 years after recently being released from house arrest and elected to the Burmese parliament. She will travel to London and Oslo, Norway, where she will formally accept her peace prize, granted in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
Suu Kyi could not confirm rumors that a large number of Burmese government ministers are about to resign. She did say that she supports Sen. John McCain's idea to "suspend" some sanctions against the Burmese state as further incentive for the military government to continue reforms.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained we will have to think of other ways of making sure the aspirations of the Burmese people for democracy is respected."
"I believe that sanctions have been effective in persuading this government to go for change," she said. "I do advocate caution, though. I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible."
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