shaking up the neighbors

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    Shaking Up the Neighbors
    By Thomas L. Friedman
    The New York Times
    August 6, 2003

    AMMAN, Jordan — Shortly after the 25-member Governing Council was appointed in Iraq, the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, questioned the U.S.-appointed Council's legitimacy. "If this Council was elected," complained Mr. Moussa, "it would have gained much power and credibility."
    I love that quote. I love it, first of all, for its bold, gutsy, shameless, world-class hypocrisy. Mr. Moussa presides over an Arab League in which not one of the 22 member states has a leader elected in a free and fair election. On top of it, before the war, Mr. Moussa did all he could to shield Saddam Hussein from attack, although Saddam had never held a real election in his life. Yet, there was Mr. Moussa questioning the new U.S.-appointed Iraqi Council, which, even in its infant form, is already the most representative government Iraq has ever had.

    But I also love Mr. Moussa's comment for its unintended revolutionary message: "power and credibility" come from governments that are freely "elected." If only that were the motto of the Arab League. Alas, it is not, but it might be one day, and that brings me to the core question of this column: What has been the Arab reaction to Iraq?

    The short answer is: Shock, denial, fear and some stirrings of change. The shock comes from how easily the U.S.-British force smashed Saddam's regime. The denial is manifest in the absence of virtually any public discussion among Arab elites as to why Baghdad fell so easily and why such a terrible regime was indulged by the Arab world for so long.

    "The most striking thing," one Arab diplomat remarked to me, "is that there are no debates going on [in the Arab world.] There is no W.M.D. debate. There is no debate about the atrocities and the mass graves. Even inside Iraq there doesn't seem to be much soul-searching, like there was in Germany after World War II. That is worrisome to me. People have to learn from the mistakes that were made, and there is no attempt at doing that."

    The denial is closely related to the fears. Many Arab leaders and intellectuals seem to be torn between two fears about Iraq: fear that the U.S. will succeed in transforming Iraq into a constitutional, democratizing society, which would put pressure on every other Arab regime to change, and fear that the U.S. will fail and Iraq will collapse into ethnic violence that will suck in all the neighbors and look like Lebanon's civil war on steroids.

    For now, though, a few governments are getting ahead of the curve, while most are still hiding behind it. Jordan's King Abdullah has been the most pro-active, pushing his conservative population down the path of economic reform, and is likely to begin experimenting soon with political reform as well.

    Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah recently convened an unusual dialogue between Sunni and Shiite clerics in Saudi Arabia to head off tensions that could flow from Iraq's being ruled by its Shiite majority for the first time in its history. Fears that a democratically elected Shiite-led government in Iraq could stir downtrodden Shiite minorities around the Arab world to demand more power are rife among the dominant Sunni Muslims. Many Sunni Muslims look down on the Shiites as inferior. Think how Southern whites would feel if a black had been elected governor of Mississippi in 1920, and you'll have a taste of how uneasy the Sunnis are about a Shiite-led government in Iraq.

    While Saudi Arabia is introducing more reforms at home than generally thought, too often it is one step forward, one step back. Just the other day another moderate Saudi columnist, Hussein Shobokshi, was sacked under government pressure. According to The A.P., Mr. Shobokshi had recently written a column imagining a Saudi Arabia where his daughter could drive and he could vote. Egypt remains totally gridlocked on reform, while the Syrian regime is going totally the wrong way, tightening its grip at home and pushing out all the freethinkers in Lebanon's cabinet.

    As long as it is not clear how Iraq is going to come out, Arab regimes can practice denial. But if there is a decent government elected in Baghdad in two years, it will be as easy to ignore as a 10.0 earthquake. I think Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, the editor of London's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, got it right when he remarked to me of the U.S. invasion of Iraq: "It is a mix between Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the 1967 war. There is the shock of defeat like '67 and the introduction of new thinking in the region like Napoleon. I can't predict how it will all come out, but for some reason I think it will be positive."

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