If as seems increasingly likely, the day of the dictator is drawing to a close in North Africa and the Middle EAst, what should we be doing to hasten the sunset? No fly zone in Libya? Perhaps, if Gadaffi continues to use aircraft to kill his own people. Suspend exports of arms? Absolutely: it is indeed shameful that we have been supplying ammunition for the guns that have mown down pro-democracy supporters in Libya. A Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of North Africa - undoubtedly, in the longer term, if only because this would be in our economic interest to create new markets and trading partners. But what else? What should we do now? Are pious lectures about introducing democracy enough?
Actually, they might be.
I am normally highly critical of apologists for liberal capitalism lecturing about freedom as if there weren't profound problems about political representation in western democracies . But not now - this is no time to quibble or debate the finer points. What we have will do. A message needs to be sent to the people risking their lives in dusty squares in remote town centres in North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships that they can achieve freedom. That message has to be that they are right to protest, that democracy is worth it, and that by overthrowing the dictators they will not simply swap one form of oppression for another.
Yes, I know that they are going to be disillusioned. Exactly the same happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The chaotic introduction of liberal capitalism - often by unthinking advocates of the more extreme variants of free market ideology - plunged countries into economic depression and social dislocation. Russian life expectancy plummeted. University professors were left digging potatoes. Millions were thrown out of work. In countries like East Germany, industry and infrastructure was so poor, it mostly had to be scrapped. Countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia took two decades to get back on their feet.
However, is there anyone today, of any political persuasion, who would deny that the collapse of communism was worth it? They were prepared to tolerate impoverishment so long as they gained their freedom.
Many on the Left hesitated in 1989, unsure whether the pro-democracy protests in Eastern Europe were for real. A number hoped that, beneath the communist bureaucracy, there might be something salvageable of socialism. Turned out there was very little that could be saved from the great communist experiment. It was an unmitigated disaster, and an eternal stain on the conscience of the Left. The peoples of Eastern Europe continue to resist socialism because they associate it with communist dictatorship, and that isn't going to change. They embraced the church because it had stood with them through the long communist nightmare.
It's a lot easier this time because no on believes that beneath the carapace of tyranny there is anything other than tyranny and oppression. Do not let our reservations about western democracy to get in the way of freedom in North Africa. The people there understand so much better than we do, in the comfort of our safe protected lives, the value of liberal democracy. The rule of law. The power to vote governments out of power. Freedom from arrest.
So, let's get behind the protests by giving them a few lectures on freedom. The new democracies will need a constitution, charters of human rights, proportional electoral systems, an independent civil administration, army that defends the people not dictators, a civil police force that locks up criminals not dissident. We can do this, we have the universities and more politicians than we know what to do with. There are numerous think tanks with little to do. We have the political expertise to deliver a Marshall Plan of the mind.
We've spent the last five decades selling them weapons; let's spend the next five months giving them the tools for civil society.