What the demonstrators, who have the historical memory of a gnat, don't understand is that, on the contrary, oil is why America kept its distance from the region for so long. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt made alliance with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. chose to leave the Arab world to its own political and social devices so long as it remained a reasonably friendly petrol station. The arrangement lasted a very long time. Had Sept. 11 never happened, it would have lasted longer.
Sept. 11 brought home a terrible truth. It revealed a mortal enemy, even more fanatical than the vanquished scourges of the 20th century (fascism and communism), lying this time in the bosom of the Arab world. It was temporarily housed in Afghanistan, but it was not Afghan. It has non-Arab Islamic adherents, but it is not pan-Islamic. It does not speak for all Arabs, but it does speak to Arab frustrations, failures and fantasies, what Fouad Ajami has called "the dream palace of the Arabs."
Neglect, it turned out, had a price, a terrible price. After World War II, America pressed for democratic reform in Germany and Japan and throughout Western Europe and Asia. It succeeded. Democracy put down roots. Yet two regions remained exempt from this democratizing impulse: Africa, because of its chaos and lack of strategic assets; and the Middle East, because of its oil and apparent benignity.
Sept. 11 forever abolished the notion of benignity. It revealed an Arab world that had resisted modernization and democracy and become home to the most virulent anti-Americanism on the planet. And that hatred threatens the most catastrophic consequences. Maybe not from Saddam, maybe not even from al-Qaeda. Maybe only from their emulators and successors. The players may change, but the blow will come.
Hence the awful realization: preventing the next Sept. 11 will require America to engage the Arab world the way it engaged Europe and Asia a half-century ago. Totally. We have long recoiled from such an undertaking. For decades, we tried a far more modest approach to the Arab world. It had three parts:
Pacification: buying off and subsidizing corrupt governments.
Policing: dealing with terrorism as a form of crime, not war.
Patrolling: maintaining a balance of power in the region principally through an offshore naval presence.
After Sept. 11, the old offshore, hands-off, see-no-evil policy will not suffice. We now understand the cost of that abdication. It leaves a critical part of the world insulated and isolated and incubating terrible enemies and terrible weapons.
Hence Iraq. This is about more than the terrible weapons. It is about reconstituting a terrorized society. A de-Saddamized Iraq with a decent government could revolutionize the region. It would provide friendly basing not just for the outward projection of American power but also for the outward projection of democratic and modernizing ideas, which is why the Administration plans an 18-month occupation for a civil and political reconstruction unlike any since postwar Germany and Japan. If we succeed, the effect on the region would be enormous, encouraging democrats and modernizers and threatening despots and troglodytes in neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond. To do this, however, America must give up patrolling from over the horizon. It must come ashore.
Americans don't like that. They do not hunger for exotic lands. America is perhaps the only hegemonic power in history in constant search of "exit strategies." But Sept. 11 taught that what the U.S. needs in the Arab world is not an exit strategy but an entry strategy. Iraq is the beckoning door.
The Arabs fully understand this historic shift from containment to construction. They see that pan-Arab reformation is the deepest meaning of an American entry into Iraq. That is why the Arab League so strenuously opposes the intervention. The rulers of the 22 Arab states not a single one freely elected understand that Iraq is only the beginning and that reformation ultimately spells their end. Not a happy prospect for them, but a real hope for their long-repressed peoples and for those threatened by the chaos and fanaticism bred in that cauldron of repression.
Reformation and reconstruction of an alien culture are a daunting task. Risky and, yes, arrogant. Which is why there is no great desire in America to undertake such a mission. Before 9/11, no one would have seriously even proposed it. After 9/11, we dare not shrink from it. America is coming ashore.