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Originally published Friday, May 13, 2011 at 3:25 PM

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Guest columnist

The Arab street searches for George Washingtons

With the Arab spring presenting many opportunities for change in Middle Eastern leadership, guest columnist John Miller reflects on how American's first president paved the way for a republic that embraced orderly leadership transitions.

Special to The Times

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WITH all the sympathetic commentary about the chances of setting up republican institutions in revolt-torn Arab countries, one point is so obvious that it is rarely mentioned: Founding leaders of newly democratized states must be willing to give up power.

The Middle Eastern dictators who have been or are in danger of being overthrown largely came to power through revolutions, enjoyed initial popular support and mouthed democratic aspirations. Many Arab leaders, excepting the monarchs, followed the example of the United States in setting up post-colonial governments, establishing democratic constitutions, calling their governments "republics" and calling themselves "presidents."

President Ben Ali in Tunisia, site of the first revolt, had been in power for 24 years. President Hosni Mubarak held power for 40 years. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for 32 years; in Syria, the father and son al Assads have ruled for 50 years, and in Libya Col. Moammar Gadhafi has ruled for 42 years.

So what went wrong? Once one has attained power, it is a natural human instinct to want to keep it. This instinct is not confined to the Arab world. The first French Republic was usurped by Napoleon, who wanted to be emperor for life.

For new republics to survive, the first leader must gracefully abdicate. It is not impossible — our own George Washington is the most notable example, and there are Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa in post-communist Eastern Europe who followed Washington's example — but it is not probable and success depends on the character of the founding leader rather than constitutions.

The difference in the founding of the United States did not so much relate to our Constitution — the two-term limit on presidents did not go into effect until 1952 and constitutions are easily disregarded by men with dictatorial aspirations — but to the qualities of our first leader.

As Thomas Jefferson remarked, "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."

Washington's modesty and self-restraint were not natural, but he willed and shaped his own character. With no formal schooling but widely read, Washington modeled himself on the virtuous Roman leader, Cato the Younger, who exemplified public service without personal ambition. Cato was the subject of a play by Joseph Addison, the most performed 18th-century play in the colonies, and was probably witnessed by Washington, an inveterate theatregoer, many times.

Still, Washington must have been tempted by power. As early as the second year of the American Revolution, Philadelphia clergyman Jacob Duche wrote that Gen. Washington should assume monarchical powers. A Rhode Island congressman in 1781, frustrated by congressional mismanagement of the war, called for an American dictator, and there was no doubt whom he had in mind. The French king made clear his wishes to Benjamin Franklin that most of a key loan should not go to Congress but to Gen. Washington.

Col. Lewis Nicola wrote Washington near the end of the Revolutionary War urging that he assume the powers of a king and reported quite accurately that Washington taking on such a role was being widely discussed in the Army and other places.

Washington would have none of this. He responded quickly to Nicola's proposal, describing the idea as repugnant, mischievous, shameful and painful. Washington advised Nicola to never mention such an idea again. The intimidated Nicola wrote Washington three letters of apology in several days.

Washington then faced down potential army mutineers who wanted to march on Philadelphia, take over the government and possibly install Washington as military dictator.

No wonder early Americans compared Washington to Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman general who saved the Roman Republic but then returned to his farm and plow.

Six years later, after the enactment of the Constitution, Washington reluctantly agreed to serve as the nation's first president and only after pleading by Hamilton and Jefferson, agreed to serve a second term. He then retired to Mount Vernon, advising his countrymen that the future of the new nation was bright and they could do without him. The ultimate greatness of the man Americans regarded as indispensable, was that he considered himself quite dispensable.

Many had expected Washington to be president for life. King George III, who earlier had expressed amazement at Washington's refusal to assume the crown, was equally amazed at his departure from the presidency, exclaiming "there is the greatest man in the world."

Before dying on the isle of Elba, the imprisoned Napoleon, who knew something about holding and extending power, moaned that "they expected me to be another Washington." When Washington said he would rather be back on his farm "than emperor of the world, by God," he meant it.

This brings us back to the present Middle East. The people of the Arab nations cry out for liberty. They have pursued their hopes for democratic republics as the American colonists did, both by nonviolent and, when forced, violent means. But to preserve republican government, they need leaders who will not only lead but give up leadership. They need Arab George Washingtons.

Former Congressman John R. Miller is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Affairs, a senior fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute and is writing a book on George Washington and civilian supremacy over the military.

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