DALLAS — Former President George W. Bush said Thursday that he wasn't surprised by the recent uprisings in the Middle East, but warned that patience will be needed as it takes time for freedom to "take root."
"I think we live in exciting times and I'm not surprised that freedom continues to march forward," Bush said. "And the reason I'm not surprised, is because I believe and many in this room believe, deep in the soul of every man, woman and child on the face of the earth is the desire to be free."
Bush made brief remarks while introducing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a one-day conference hosted by the George W. Bush Institute.
"It is clear that it takes time for freedom to take root," Bush said. "So while these are exiting times, these times also require a degree of patience."
He added that the U.S. shouldn't become isolated while those freedom reforms are taking place. "It's important for our country to understand that what happens abroad affects us at home," he said.
Rice told the audience of about 300 — including professors, activists and officials from pro-democracy organizations — that fledging reforms in the Mideast need to be nurtured, adding, "This is no time for the United States of America to lose its nerve."
"The message should be freedom is always worth it. It's hard. You've begun your journey. We will be with you," Rice said.
In what has come to be called the "Arab Spring," Tunisia's long-term dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January. The next month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the face of a popular uprising. Other countries that have seen uprisings include Syria, Libya and Bahrain.
Reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rice said, "What one day seems impossible seems inevitable in retrospect."
Echoing Bush's words, Rice said, "Democracy, if allowed to flourish, does emerge. But it's hard and its tough and it takes time."
She said that fledgling democracies in the Mideast — Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank of Palestine — need to be strengthened, as do healthy political forces in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Monarchies like Jordan and Morocco, should be pushed toward constitutional power, she said.
She said that "even in troubled Bahrain and conservative Saudi Arabia, there are seeds of reform."
Some governments, she said, like Syria and Iran, won't make the transition to democracy on their own.
"The world will be better off without Bashar Assad and the mullahs in Iran," she said to applause.
In the case of Libya leader Moammar Gadhafi, she said that the U.S. must make sure that his regime does not survive.
The conference called "The Wave of Freedom: Early Lessons from the Middle East," was being held on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where Bush's presidential center is being built.
Panel discussions included the role social media had in the uprisings and what influence the uprisings might have on other non-democratic regimes, including Cuba and China.
During a question-and-answer period, Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah told Rice that while Egyptians are grateful to the U.S. for helping start a freedom movement there in 2004-2005, he said the U.S. also then "let us down."
"If we let you down, it was not for lack of trying to hold you up," Rice said. "The United States is not able always immediately to push events in the direction we would want to go."Comment on this story
She said they tried to give Egyptians the tools they would need to speak out for freedom, adding, "There's a reason Hosni Mubarak never came back to the U.S. after 2004. ... It had to do with how we were dealing with the Egyptian revolution."
About 10 protestors stood outside of the university's gates as the conference began, with signs that included one reading, "Greed Kills."
The Bush library and the institute, which focuses on education reform, global health, economic growth and human freedom, will be part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is expected to be completed in 2013.