Does the Arab World Want Something Better?

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Is Iraq a threat or an opportunity? Do we care about it only because we believe Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, or does our confrontation with Baghdad have a loftier goal? Do we seek to help build a democratic, prosperous Iraq — one that might be a model throughout the Arab world — and if so, how might we do it?

Those are important questions, and answers to them might shape attitudes everywhere about a war with Saddam. So far, they haven't featured much in the public debate. They should. The Arab world is in a disastrous state of its own making. The Arab Human Development Report, prepared by a group of regional experts last summer, makes truly depressing reading. "The wave of democracy that transformed Latin America, East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America," the report argues, "has barely reached the Arab States... More than half of Arab women are illiterate... The quality of public institutions is low... One out of every five people lives on less than $2 a day." Who could argue against the case that for the sake of its own people, the region needs to change — or be changed?

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Within the Administration, the person most closely associated with seeking a democratic transformation of the Middle East is Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense. But it's not clear that his position is shared by all his colleagues, and he is easy to dismiss by those who are pessimistic about the ability of the U.S. to remake the world. In the New York Review of Books, Anthony Lewis recently allowed that he was "moved by [Wolfowitz's] optimism, but I kept thinking of one thing: Vietnam."

Now, nobody in his right mind should forget the quagmire into which the U.S. sank when it engaged in the internal affairs of Southeast Asia. But it's a bit much to take an example 30 years old as the sole guide to our actions today. There's an analogy much closer to hand. Iraq is a dictatorship with a centralized economy; it strictly controls access to the outside world; its people live in fear of thugs from the state security apparatus; and not least, it devotes much of its budget to secret military programs. All of that was true of the European communist nations during the cold war. Yet, though there have been bumps along the way, Central and Eastern Europe now are places of democracy, free markets and peace. What lessons can we learn from that success?

One factor, surely, was a clarity of vision. In Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the most popular Western politicians were those like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who didn't pussyfoot around but called the communist tyranny what it was. Michael Mandelbaum, author of a new book The Ideas That Conquered the World, argues, however, that Reagan's importance to the transformation of Europe came less from what he said than from what he stood for — the West's evident freedom and prosperity. "It was the power of example that made the difference," Mandelbaum says. "People believed what they noticed rather than what they were told." In the same vein, Mircea Geoana, Foreign Minister of Romania, believes the transformation of tyrannies comes not from a clash of ideologies but from countless decisions of the human heart. Democracy and freedom, Geoana said to me last week, are indeed "universal ideas," but he identified the key driver for change in Europe as the simple "desire of families to see their children lead a better life."

It's insulting to think that Arab families don't have the same motives. Yet tapping that sentiment to build a constituency for change won't be easy. Those east of the Iron Curtain, Geoana points out, were conscious that Western Europe offered them an alternative that was geographically and culturally close. No Arab state, yet, acts as such a model. Moreover, in Europe, change was associated with the rejection of imperial — in this case, Russian — rule. But in Iraq, regime change through the force of American arms could easily be seen as the reimposition of imperialism. Fairly or not, in the Arab world, America's appetite for cheap oil and its closeness to Israel undercut its claims to act in the name of freedom and democracy. Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who has just returned from Baghdad, says many Iraqis want change — but think the U.S. is the last nation likely to supply it. Geoana broadens the point: "External pressure is not enough," he says, "If you export a product that is alien to a culture, it won't work. People find it difficult to choose between patriotism and freedom."

In an ideal situation, the Arab world would deserve and have both. How the Administration plans to work toward that happy consummation is another of those awkward unanswered questions. This fall, there are too many of those around for comfort.