"SHOULD THE ARABS abandon their dream of unity and join NATO?" That improbable question came, in a burst of anger over the cancellation of the Arab League summit last month, from Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the league, after Tunisia called off the meeting it was to have hosted.

If Moussa's rhetoric was intended to shame the Arabs into closing ranks and fixing a new date for the summit, he was disappointed. Many Arab states are persuaded that the league is dead and--amazingly enough--are starting to talk of associating themselves not only with NATO, but with the World Trade Organization and the European Union as well.

Sure enough, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan are already on course to sign formal partnership agreements with NATO at the alliance's June summit in Istanbul. Libya, currently undertaking a complete rethink of its foreign policy, has expressed interest in "some form of cooperation" with NATO. Preliminary talks are planned for Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait to develop links with NATO in the next few years. And Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, the Iraqi defense minister, has indicated that his newly liberated nation's strategy will be based on "close alliance with democratic nations, including those grouped in NATO."

"The collapse of the Tunis summit, now tentatively rescheduled for May 22, has led to what looks like a stampede," says a senior Kuwaiti official. "We now realize that, by grouping together, the Arabs have been preventing one another from contemplating long overdue reforms."

Although Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, described the cancellation of the Tunis summit as a catastrophe, several other Arab leaders view it as a blessing in disguise. Judging by a draft of the cancelled summit's proposed final declaration, they may be closer to the truth than Mubarak. The 4,000-word draft--leaked to the Arab press, presumably by the Tunisians--reveals an Arab leadership paralyzed by fear of the future and hanging on for dear life to timeworn clich├ęs.

Thus, the draft allocates a little over 300 words to a pompously entitled "Charter of Reform of the Arab World." This turns out to be a hodge-podge of contradictory pledges and pious hopes that the summiteers must have known would be taken seriously by no one. The issue of women, for example, is brushed off in 20 words, while the vital fight against international terrorism gets all of 30 words, 22 of them insisting that the term "terrorism" does not apply to anything done by "the Palestinian resistance movements." By contrast, the draft devotes 156 words to a dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three islands in the Persian Gulf.

None of the dramatic changes in the world in recent decades is reflected in the draft. In fact, with few modifications, it could have been presented at any of the 15 Arab summits held so far. Its authors, in other words, are in a state of denial.

They do not realize that with the end of the Cold War, they can no longer play one bloc against another to ensure their day-to-day survival. Nor do they register the impact on public opinion in the major democracies of the September 11 attacks on the United States. They cannot see how out of place the Arab economic system, dominated by a corrupt and inefficient public sector, appears in an age of open markets and globalization. More surprising still is the failure of the authors to understand the effect of the demographic explosion on Arab societies. Nor do they appreciate the significance of a new and growing class of urban, educated, and unemployed youths or the rising awareness among women of their potential power.

Whatever usefulness the Arab League ever had, it clearly is not helping the Arabs come to grips with the two key questions facing them: how to find a place in a world that was not designed by them and that they do not control; and how to reform their political processes to reflect the needs and aspirations of increasingly vocal middle classes in a context of power-sharing.

Because the Arab states are at different stages of development and face different internal and external challenges, no single strategy suits all 22 members of the Arab League. This is hardly surprising: The European Union, a far more cohesive and deep-rooted partnership of nations, has trouble enough moving its members' economic and foreign policies toward convergence. But the result, for the Arabs, has been to slow down reform through inertia and a quest for the lowest common denominator favoring the most conservative members of the league.

Instead, if they are serious about reform, the Arab nations have two options. The first is to develop national strategies based on each country's needs and potentials. On the issue of equality for women, for example, Morocco is far ahead of, say, Oman, although both are monarchies. In Algeria the aspiration for free elections is far stronger than it is in Libya, although both are labeled republics. Jordan, which has always had a capitalist system, is better able to find a place in the global market economy than is its neighbor Syria, with its decades-old Soviet-style command economy. It is easier for the United Arab Emirates, always an open society, to accept ideas like the free circulation of people and capital than it is for Egypt, which has always been obsessed with security.

The second option the Arab states have is to link up with other groupings of nation-states, thus broadening the context of their quest for reform. Several Arab states, including Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, have already joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). And the North African Arab nations and Jordan have developed a form of association with the European Union through its Euro-Mediterranean dialogue. In every case, association with a larger international organization has forced the Arab states to introduce reforms they would have been unable or unwilling to risk on their own. The partnership-for-peace type arrangement envisaged between NATO and the Arab states goes beyond military matters. The economic advantages include easier access to North American and European Union markets, and a package of scientific and cultural joint programs is under discussion.

While these new ties may help put some Arab countries on the path of reform, a broader effort is still needed. This could come in the form of a dialogue between the Arab states and the major democracies. The aim should be to commit the Arab states to economic, social, and political reforms and standards of behavior that none would be capable of introducing alone.

The historic precedent is the talks that led to the Helsinki Accords between the democracies and the Soviet bloc in the 1970s. Some Arab leaders reject the comparison, arguing that the Arab League does not constitute an anti-West bloc, as did the Soviet camp during the Cold War. While this is technically true, the fact remains that the most immediate threat to the democratic world today comes from radical and terrorist movements rooted in Arab societies. It may be possible to contain these movements through more efficient police work and, when necessary, military intervention. In the long run, however, the best way to kill the monster of terror is through genuine change in the Arab world.

Within the next 100 days the issue will be discussed at the NATO summit in Turkey and the G-8 summit in the United States. The United States and its allies could use both forums to invite the Arabs into a dialogue for peace and partnership aimed at reform and democratization as well as economic development and security.

The Arab peoples need reform and democratization to save themselves from poverty, despotism, and violence. The United States and its democratic allies have a stake in that: Democracy in the Arab countries could mean greater security for the West.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.

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