Having visited two formerly occupied countries where there is now freedom and democracy — Ireland and Poland – President Obama today ruminated on their lessons for the countries embracing the same values in the so-called “Arab Spring.”
The process, he noted, is "not always smooth. There are going to be twists and turns. There are going to be occasions where you take one step forward and two steps back — sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back."
What leaders of these changing nations need to do, he said, is first to understand that they have to "institutionalize this transformation," which he described as a potentially difficult and lengthy process.
"It’s not enough just to have the energy — the initial thrust of those young people in Tahrir Square, or the initial enthusiasm of the Solidarity movement," he said. "That, then, has to be institutionalized and the habits of countries have to change."
Merely holding elections is not enough, he said. A process needs to emerge to establish rule of law and the respect of the rights of minorities, and mechanisms to guarantee freedom of the press and freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Potential ethnic conflicts that may arise need to be brokered.
Another lesson offered by the president was for the American people to understand the importance of the US in helping these countries.
While countries on the outside "cannot impose this change," he said, they can help and facilitate and make a difference.
"The testimony of I think the people that I’ve spoken to here in Poland — as is true when I had conversations about the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict — was that American participation, American facilitation of dialogue, our investment in civil society, our willingness to do business, our openness to ultimate membership in international institutions like NATO — all those things made a difference," he said. "It solidifies, it fortifies people’s impulse that change is possible."
Just last night at a dinner with Central European leaders, one of them recalled that "'There were those who said we could not handle democracy, that our cultures were too different. But America had faith in us. And so now we want to join with America and have faith in those in the Middle East and in North Africa. Even if some don't think that they can handle democracy, or that their cultures are too different, our experience tells us something different.'"
The president called that "a good lesson for all of us to remember."
So "even at a time when we have fiscal constraints, even at a time where I spend most of my day thinking about our economy and how to put folks back to work and how to make sure that we’re reducing gas prices and how we stabilize the housing market and how we innovate and adapt and change so that we are fully competitive in the 21st century and maintain our economic leadership," he said, "I want the American people to understand we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights."
On Saturday, one Polish political leader told the president that "he had lived through three waves of revolutionary transformation in his lifetime. He saw the shift from military rule to democracy in Latin America. He saw those changes then take place with incredible speed when the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was pulled asunder. And now he’s seeing what’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East."