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A ground game that could favor the U.S.

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As in the previous decade, freedom made little headway in 2013. Throughout that period, the United States has labored unsuccessfully to build free governments in the Middle East and Africa. In 2014, we should seek to promote freedom where the going may be easier.

Freedom isn't retreating. But it isn't advancing either. Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy group, reported in 2002 that 46 percent of the world's nations were free. By 2013, that percentage was unchanged.

It's not just political freedoms and human rights that are languishing. The world average of the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom was the same in 2013 as it was in 2004. That means the world -- including the United States -- will be less prosperous, too.

And the omens for the future are unfavorable. The latest National Intelligence Estimate -- judgments by intelligence experts in the federal government -- predicts that the gains made in Afghanistan will disappear rapidly after U.S. troops withdraw. In Iraq, more than 7,000 civilians died in 2013, more than double the previous year's total.

In Africa, the creation of South Sudan in 2011 was supposedly a bipartisan success story. But after hundreds of millions in U.S aid, a quarrel between South Sudanese leaders is turning into an ethnic conflict, and yet another failure for U.S.-led efforts at state-building.

The problem is that we have been focusing on the hardest cases. Freedom has taken root in many parts of the world, so there is no reason to believe that it cannot work in any particular culture. But geography and history matter.

Freedom has prospered in places that are insulated from their surroundings. The United States, for example, survived because during its early days, oceans protected it. The peninsula of South Korea is another example, as is the island of Japan. Even Western Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia, which during the Cold War we sealed off from Soviet interference. By contrast, we were never able to isolate South Vietnam or Afghanistan: Both had neighbors that hated what we were trying to achieve, and did their best to destroy it.

It also helps if the nation has some experience with representative government, no matter how flawed. Japan was not a liberal democracy before 1945, but it did have the decade of the 1920s on which to build. Iraq and the rest, regrettably, have no such useful history.

Of course, these are only tendencies: Israel, for example, is all the more remarkable because its borders are defended by the Israel Defense Forces, not oceans. But we would do better by trying to encourage freedom in places where geography and history work with us, not against us.

The best bet is Cuba. Yes, generations of Americans have gone broke betting on Fidel Castro's demise. But the island had nearly 20 years of representative government in the early 1900s, and the current regime is desperate to hang on to political power by introducing economic changes. That is a dangerous moment for any dictatorship.

Morocco, too, offers possibilities. Separated from North Africa by the Atlas Mountains, it has no history of free rule, but it does have weak representative institutions today. We can keep the pressure on Cuba, while encouraging Morocco to press forward with its recent reforms.

True, Cuba and Morocco are less important to us than Iraq. This is admittedly a policy of doing what we can, when we can. It is not dramatic, it's not about using our military, and it will not save us from having to respond to security challenges like 9/11.

But for the past decade we have been playing on the enemy's ground. It's time we started seeking out ground that favors us. If we do, 2014 might be better for freedom than 2013.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Originally appeared in Long Island Newsday

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