Sunday, February 20, 2005

When Camels Fly

Thomas Friedman discussed emerging trends toward democracy and popular rule in the Middle East in his New York Times column today:

It's good news, bad news time again for the Middle East. The good news is that what you are witnessing in the Arab world is the fall of its Berlin Wall. The old autocratic order is starting to crumble. The bad news is that unlike the Berlin Wall in central Europe, the one in the Arab world is going to fall one bloody brick at a time, and, unfortunately, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union are not waiting to jump into our arms on the other side.

No one is more pleased than I am to see the demonstration of "people power" in Iraq, with millions of Iraqis defying the "you vote, you die" threat of the Baathists and jihadists. No one should take lightly the willingness of the opposition forces in Lebanon to stand up and point a finger at the Syrian regime and say "J'accuse!" for the murder of the opposition leader Rafik Hariri. No one should dismiss the Palestinian election, which featured a real choice of candidates, and a solid majority voting in favor of a decent, modernizing figure - Mahmoud Abbas. No one should ignore the willingness of some Egyptians to demand to run against President Hosni Mubarak when he seeks a fifth - unopposed - term. These are things you have not seen in the Arab world before. They are really, really unusual - like watching camels fly.

Something really is going on with the proverbial "Arab street." The automatic assumption that the "Arab street" will always rally to the local king or dictator - if that king or dictator just waves around some bogus threat or insult from "America," "Israel" or "the West" - is no longer valid. Yes, the Iraq invasion probably brought more anti-American terrorists to the surface. But it also certainly brought more pro-democracy advocates to the surface.

There are numerous other examples of liberalizing trends in the Middle East that Friedman doesn't mention. These include Libya's renunciation of nuclear development and opening to the world in a number of ways, Saudi Arabia's nascent moves toward at least mentioning that there are social issues that must be addressed, Pakistan's apparent about-face in at least attempting to support U.S. and international anti-terrorism efforts, and even Iran in it's recognition that the world must be dealt with rationally on matters such as nuclear weapons development.

I realize that it's impossible for some to admit that the Bush Administration's policies in the Middle East might actually succeed in generating and sustaining movement toward greater freedom and democracy in that benighted region. As Friedman notes, it won't be a painless process, but there's clearly movement in that direction, and history teaches us that movement of this kind takes on an almost irresistible inertia. Once the door is opened even slightly, it's very difficult to go back.

The road to freedom and democracy is always long and difficult, especially for primitive societies like those of the Middle East. However, if these trends continue and gain strength, it could be that those who are so vitriolic in their opposition to President Bush and American foreign policy will be proven to be on the wrong side of history.


Blogger Esther said...

I agree that the change will have tremendous growing pains but can you imagine if it really works? As the song says, "What a wonderful world it could be." I'm working my way up to cautious optimism. Right now I think there's still a very long way to go.

10:47 AM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

It needs to be noted that many of these same regimes in the Middle East were propped up in various ways by our own government using "the devil that you know..." rational. Egypt continues to be second only to Israel in terms of our international Welfare aid, for example. The Arab street isn't ignorant of these historical facts of life.

Yes, the winds of change are blowing in the Middle East. Where they will lead is an open question at this point. Much depends on the Israeli/Palestinian issue being resolved equitably. I don't think that can be overstated.

I don't see the political will within the Bush administration to pressure Israel in meaningful terms towards a just resolution that could decide the future of the region in our favor. Nor was there the political will with the Clinton administration despite what Democrats would have us believe.

It would be exceedingly niave of us to ignore the theological fixation that some of the most political in the Religious Right have on helping God usher in Armageddon in Israel. A just resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would seem to run directly counter to their goals. And they are very politically active. Which doesn't leave me overly optimistic about where the winds of change in the Middle East will find us in 5 or 10 years.

12:02 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Kevin said, "Much depends on the Israeli/Palestinian issue being resolved equitably. I don't think that can be overstated."

I think it can.

Do you really think the majority of Arabs care about the Palestinians? If they did, they'd give the ones in their countries citizenship or they'd have made them a state themselves (especially when Jordan had the West Bank and Egypt had Gaza for 19 years). Check out the following from the Jewish Virtual Library:

"The old saw that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the source of all evil in the Middle East is being trotted out again to justify the failure of the Arab states to embrace President Bush’s democracy initiative or to reform their authoritarian societies. If the conflict was resolved tomorrow, or if Israel ceased to exist, however, the Arab world’s despots would be no more interested in reform than they are today."

Read the rest about the "Myth of Palestinian Centrality" here:

5:40 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

Esther asks: "Do you really think the majority of Arabs care about the Palestinians?"

I don't think the majority care nearly as much about the Palestinians themselves as they do about the broader implications of the conflict for them.

Esther continues: "If they did, they'd give the ones in their countries citizenship..."

Let's say they did that. Since when would that change the Palestinians desire for their own homeland? Did holding citizenship in other countries prevent Jews from migrating to Israel?

Esther continues: "...or they'd have made them a state themselves (especially when Jordan had the West Bank and Egypt had Gaza for 19 years)."

Reality check! I could just as easily turn it around and say that if the Israeli's cared then why don't they carve out a country for the Palestinians? The reality is that nations historically simply don't cede their own territory unless they have no choice or unless they see it as worthless land and can make a few bucks off the deal.

6:16 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Since Israel is working on a solution and has been trying to participate on solutions I don't see your point, Kevin.

Another thing - I think the Palestinian issue has been used to deflect the desire for self-determination and a better future within individual Arab countries towards the desire for self-determination of the entire Arab world. To this end the myth that Israel dominates the entire western world and most especially the US has been built up.

It's not that I think the countries don't care about the Palestinian issue. They do, in a hysterical and crazed way. But they don't care enough to make any compromises for the most part that would solve the problem. Israel can't make peace under the current circumstances, although it does seem to have tried to seize any opportunity that arises, IMO.

Anyone who reads what is said by the raving lunatics of the Arab world about Jews realizes that those people have to cease dominating the discussion before peace and justice can prevail. The only solution they will currently accept is Israel's destruction, and that would lead to a situation at least as unjust as the current one, and far more loss of life.

Tom - have you seen the news about Lebanon? Syria says it will withdraw.

11:49 PM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Great points, MoM.

Kevin, "Reality check! I could just as easily turn it around and say that if the Israeli's cared then why don't they carve out a country for the Palestinians?"

Uh, who said Israel needs to care? I meant if Arabs cared about their fellow Arabs. I see no reason why Israel needs to care other than the fact the Palestinians are a bloody thorn in their sides. Besides, until the Palestinians decide they are willing to accept a state next to Israel instead of in place of Israel, there's no chance for peace or for their own State. But what does any of that have to do with Syria's occupation with Lebanon, Saddam (when he was in power) invading Kuwait, or Egyptions killing Coptic Christians, etc.... None of those have anything to do with Israel/Palestinian crisis and if it was over, there still wouldn't be peace in that part of the world.

12:49 AM, February 22, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

I have a lot of trouble with the assumption that if Israel would just try hard enough, peace would be possible. I think just the opposite is true. If Palestinians, egged on by other Arab Muslims in the region, stop murdering Israelis, then peace will be possible, and Israel will lead the way.

By the way, the U.S. is not responsible for the problems of the Middle East. I get so damned tired of that worn-out leftist refrain.

If a two-state peaceful solution is arrived at between Israel and the Palestinians, it won't make the primitive culture of the region suddenly modernize. There will still be a strong strain of wild-eyed, hysterical behavior among Arab Muslims, and political despots and Muslim clerics will always encourage that behavior.

We have to get beyond the politically correct liberal perception that all people everywhere are exactly the same. They simply are not. The fact is, Israel, Europe, and the U.S., peoples who share a modern culture, simply cannot forcibly drag the mass of Arab Muslims into something resembling Western civilization.

I do believe that significant progress is possible, and it could well be that Bush's policies will promote it. But no one should expect that a modernized Middle East is going to look like New Jersey or Belgium. We have to take a clear-eyed and level-headed approach and not set the bar so high that success is never possible.

OK, maybe New Jersey was a bad example. But you know what I meant.

10:15 AM, February 22, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

Esther said: "Uh, who said Israel needs to care? I meant if Arabs cared about their fellow Arabs. I see no reason why Israel needs to care other than the fact the Palestinians are a bloody thorn in their sides."

Wow! Strictly in terms of rhetoric, what substantively diffentiates what you just said from what the Nazis were saying about Jews in the lead up to WWII?

Tom, who said the U.S. is responsible for the problems of the Middle East?

Oh, and what part of dropping a 500lb bomb on an inhabited apartment complex just to assasinate one Palestinian strikes you as civilized?

Me thinks you're not being any more intellectually honest about the issue than you think I am. Perhaps we're both partially correct.

5:42 PM, February 22, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...


How you characterized what I said is so off base, I barely know where to begin, but I'll try. In 1948, Israel said yes to the UN partition plan which granted both a Jewish State and Arab State. Arabs said no and 5 Arab armies attacked Israel. There are now 21 (at least) arab countries surrounding Israel (with Israel having a minute piece of the land). Why is it Israel's responsibility to carve out a country for the Palestinians? Is there some reason one of the 21 other countries can't step up to the plate?

Why is what I'm saying to be compared to Nazi rhetoric? Have you ever read any of Adolf Hitler's rhetoric? It has nothing in common.

12:40 AM, February 24, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

Why is it Israel's responsibility? It's not per se. I've not suggested that Israel carve out land from within Israel's borders. And I don't think many Palestinians are asking them to, either. Rather, they want the West Bank and Gaza back from Israeli occupation.

Yes, I've read some of Hitler's racist rantings. I don't withdraw what I said. You want to judge Arabs on the basis of whether they care according to your own terms. Yet you don't want to hold Israelis who are living on land in the Occupied Territories to the same standard as you do Iraqi Arabs or any of the other millions of Arabs who don't even live near Israel. That's racist. You're implying Israel for Israelis which really isn't any different than Hitler's rantings about Germany for Germans. Ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing, regardless of the methods employed.

2:02 PM, February 28, 2005  

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