THE SOUNDS one hears emanating from the Arab Middle East are the sounds, faint but unmistakable, of the ice cracking. Though long suppressed and successfully repressed, demands for liberal reform and claims of the right to self-government seem to be on the verge of breaking through in that difficult region.
The key to turning these random sounds of discontent into the beginnings of a symphony of self-government is, of course, success in Iraq. Here, the last month's news--the mainstream media to the contrary notwithstanding--is promising. Bush's reelection victory; the successful offensive in Falluja and the failure of the "Sunni street" to rise up in outrage; the inability of both the terrorists and antidemocratic political forces to deter the Iraqi and American governments from moving ahead with the January 30 elections; the president's willingness to increase U.S. troop levels, and his commitment to victory--all of this enables one to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects in Iraq.
And if Iraq goes well, the allegedly "utopian" and "Wilsonian" dreams of fundamental change in the broader Middle East won't look so far-fetched. Failure in Iraq, it's widely recognized, would be an utter disaster. What's less widely recognized is that the rewards of victory could be considerable. The most obvious and tangible benefits would of course be for the Iraqi people, and secondarily for American geopolitical credibility. But the indirect effects in the Middle East should not be underestimated.
Consider just the following comments made in the last couple of weeks in the Arab media, brought to our attention and translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute:
It is outrageous, and amazing, that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation. . . .
It is well and good for the Arabs to demand the right of political representation for [Iraq's] Sunni Arabs out of concern for them in the face of the tyranny of the other Iraqi groups and out of concern for national unity and the ideal relative representation. But we do not understand why this concern does not apply to the many Arab countries that do not permit their minorities to announce their existence, let alone their right to [political] representation. . . .
It is sad and pathetic that the eyes of the entire world are upon the Palestinian and Iraqi elections that will be held under the lances of foreign occupation, while the peoples of the "independent, free, and sovereign" Arab countries have no way of expressing their will.
Washington bureau chief for the London-based daily Al Hayat
Some of the [Arab League] members . . .maintain that the Baghdad government is not legitimate. Why? They argue that it is not elected and was appointed by the American occupation. This widespread view has some basis. . . . However, the talk of the illegitimacy of the [Iraqi] government. . . . allows us to raise questions regarding most of the regimes in the region . . . some of which emerged as a result of coups or internal conspiracies, when no one asked the people what it thought.
Abdel Rahman al-Rashed
director-general of Al Arabia TV, writing in the London-based daily Al Sharq Al Awsat
We are not being fair to the current Iraqi government. Not me, nor you, nor the other guest on this program, not even the viewers, but history will do justice to them. These people are establishing the first democracy in the Middle East. This country will be a platform for liberties in the whole region. In Iraq, the days of a leader who remains on his throne until he dies are gone. This is over. For the first time the Iraqi leader will be elected by Iraqi ballots.
Egyptian journalist Nabil Sharaf al-Din, speaking on Al Jazeera TV about the future of Iraq
No one can be confident how widely these sentiments are shared, or how quickly these views can penetrate so as to have real political effect. And obviously the road to democracy will be a rocky one, with twists and turns along the way, and outcomes that will not be entirely to our liking. But suddenly, with the election in Afghanistan, with the forthcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq, with voices of change being heard in the Arab world, Bush's "idealistic" project looks surprisingly realistic. This puts a greater burden on the Bush administration to be more serious about improving the execution of its Middle East strategy, both in Iraq and elsewhere. But it does suggest that with thoughtful and energetic execution, the strategy can begin to show important and far-reaching results.