This would not have surprised the Arab intellectuals who wrote the United Nations Development Program’s “Arab Human Development Report” in 2002. There they wrote: “There is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab States. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” They then discussed the poor treatment of women in so many Arab lands and said, “As a consequence, more than half of Arab women are still illiterate.” But poor educational achievements are not a problem only for women: “Illiteracy rates are much higher than in much poorer countries.” Writing of “the knowledge gap,” they said that “Arab countries’ access to and use of cutting edge technology, exemplified by information and communication technology is very limited.”
They conclude that “culture and values are the soul of development” and that “traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world.”
Perhaps Mr. Romney should have quoted some of this. Perhaps he should have invoked other cultures as well. Who can doubt, for example, that the economic success of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan owes something to Chinese culture? Is that a controversial statement for me to write? Perhaps he should have quoted Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
In fact what he said was clear enough, and ought not to have been controversial. His purported “gaffe” actually demonstrates two things.
The first is that he has actually read and thought about these issues: What causes development, why are some nations more advanced than others, and what explains prosperity? Had Al Gore or Barack Obama mentioned reading the two books Mr. Romney mentioned, the press would have spent weeks fawning over their intellectuality, brilliance, and learning. If Mr. Romney is elected, it will be interesting to see how he reforms our foreign-aid programs. I would like to have been present during his conversation with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas, when they discussed Palestinian economic development.
The second thing that was demonstrated is the ignorance and irresponsibility of the press, which immediately called Romney’s discussion a “gaffe.” The Times’ coverage of this “gaffe” relied heavily on Saeb Erekat, a PLO official most famous for his lies (see this or this) about the “Jenin massacre” in 2002. But that was ten years ago, and the Times’ correspondent accompanying Mr. Romney and writing about his “gaffe” was only 19 at the time and may not have been paying attention.
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and deputy national-security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.