To judge by the gush of many commentators, President Barack Obama can do no wrong in the Middle East—in contrast, it is said, to George W. Bush, who supposedly could do little that was right. But when it comes to advancing political liberty in the region, the current president has been more ambiguous than his predecessor.
Take Mr. Obama's recent speech in Cairo, hailed as a foundational moment for a new American approach toward Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Obama uttered generalities about democracy and political liberty. Some of it was confusing. He admitted that Iraqis were "ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," but he added that the Iraq war had shown why diplomacy and international consensus were preferable. Yet since neither diplomacy nor consensus would have ever rid the world of savage Baathist rule—which war did—what lesson did Iraq hold for American policy? Mr. Obama could not explain.
Such confusion is not new. Indeed, the Cairo speech inadvertently captured a long-standing problem of U.S. policy in the Middle East: America's allies and interlocutors in the region are often autocrats sitting atop decaying, illegitimate regimes. Mr. Bush, to his credit, removed a mass murderer from power in Baghdad and helped end 29 years of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Mr. Obama has shied away from endorsing any such action: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he insists.
Joshua Muravchik has no qualms about presuming that liberalism and democracy are best for everyone. In The Next Founders he offers admiring profiles of seven individuals who have thought and behaved as liberals in Middle Eastern societies where that kind of thing can be dangerous. The result is a engaging work of group portraiture that is especially welcome at a time when there is otherwise so little interest in making democracy an American priority overseas.
Mr. Muravchik believes that "there is no reason why the democratic idea cannot have a rebirth in the Middle East," where democracy has been "upstaged by the false promises of utopian ideologies." A democratic rebirth, he says, will depend on courageous individuals, and America's role must be to "encourage and assist them and to protect them from persecution to the extent that we can." With help, he believes, democracy can come to the Middle East within a generation. If it does, the democrats he writes about may be among the region's "founders."
Such a scenario may seem simplistic in its optimism, but Mr. Muravchik has caught just how simple the essence of the democracy debate really is. When all it said and done, it is really about individuals who have the audacity to hope that they can break free from the oppressive institutions governing them and who expect that they can count on assistance from like-minded comrades in democratic countries.
Mr. Muravchik introduces us to Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a female Saudi activist who has fought for women's rights in the kingdom against hopeless odds; and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human-rights activist and journalist who has investigated Israeli human-rights abuses over the years but also the abuses of the Palestinian Authority. There is also Rola Dashti, who played a key role in helping Kuwaiti women earn the right to vote in 2005; and Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian once close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He turned against the post-Revolution system when he headed a state-owned conglomerate, where he saw the inefficiencies of a command economy. He came to reject Iran's statist economic principles and then moved to a deeper embrace of liberal thought in general. All the democrats in Mr. Muravchik's narrative have been harassed or threatened by the governments they live under, or indeed pressured by members of their own families.
What The Next Founders says, without saying it, is that at the heart of Middle Eastern despotisms are stunted societies that never create a sense of shared purpose for their citizens. Considerable attention has been paid to how such societies breed Islamists, sometimes dangerous ones. Mr. Muravchik prefers to highlight the liberal rejoinder—the citizens who reject the status quo on behalf of freedom and human rights.
Mr. Muravchik's group portrait helps to counter an idea that is gaining ground—that Western governments must engage Islamists to better advance Western aims. He asks that we spare a thought for the fragile liberals who would pay a high price if international legitimacy were to shift decisively to autocratic religious parties.
Mr. Muravchik might have said more about why Western states should support liberals, in all their vulnerability. Take the Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. Audacious and articulate, Mr. Abdulhamid abandoned a life of privilege in Syria (he is the son of a famous actress) and chose exile in the U.S. so that he could give full force to his criticism of the Assad regime. Yet like many of those described by Mr. Muravchik, he has committed himself to a liberal ideal, and sacrificed a great deal, in return for very little so far. When Western governments revert to so-called reasons of state—where "realism" and supposed self-interest often triumphs—Middle Eastern liberals become a vanguard easily discarded.
The Middle East does not need generations of democratic practice to absorb democracy. That argument, beloved of political realists, is a convenient device for allowing the U.S. to spurn a pro-democracy agenda, which is often seen as undermining national interests. It is an argument that Mr. Muravchik convincingly dismisses. But The Next Founders might have itself argued more strongly that, by ignoring what liberalism there is in the region, the U.S. not only abandons a part of itself; it also makes more likely the proliferation of violent Islamists pining to take revenge against America, the too-frequent defender of their despotic tormentors.