Everyone realizes the shift in the Bush administration’s policy toward the Palestinians, as outlined in Bush’s speech yesterday.
But the sweep of the administration’s ambition is much larger than the West Bank, extending to an effort to remake politics in the entire Middle East in a new reformist, free-market, pluralistic direction.
This is so important because the Palestinian Authority is a minnow in the Middle East, simply swimming the same way the bigger fish — the Iraqis, Syrians, and Saudis — do. It probably won’t be until those larger states change that the PA embraces a new kind of politics.
But reforming those other states is extremely difficult — the corruption, the repression, the backwardness just run too deep. That’s why the effort has to start with something entirely new, a clean slate — in other words, a post-Saddam Iraq.
A liberated Iraq will be an opportunity for a fresh start for the region, a chance to move, once and for all, away from the current model of Middle Eastern governance in which one ethnic or religious faction seizes power and represses all others.
The Middle East can do better than that.
For evidence, look no further than northern Iraq, where the Kurds have been more or less freed from Saddam’s yoke and have created a relatively free, thriving civil society. Why shouldn’t the rest of Iraq enjoy such freedom?
A liberated Iraq will mean that Iran is strategically surrounded by U.S.-friendly states, that Syria can be cut off from Iraqi and Iranian trade, and that the U.S. will have new leverage over the Saudis.
If there is anyone who should be more dismayed by the shift in Bush-administration policy than Yasser Arafat, it’s Crown Prince Abdullah. The language of freedom and tolerance that Bush has used in recent days, both in his West Point speech and Monday, is a direct threat to the Saudi regime.
The unalterable claims of human dignity can’t be limited by geography, and there is no reason that tolerance and freedom should be something that we strive for only in the four population centers in the West Bank.
What goes for Palestinians misruled by the Tunisian Occupation should go for the Shiites, Sunnis, and other Arabians crushed by the Saudis.
Indeed, the parallel between the West Bank situation and that on the Arabian peninsula is quite stark: The same way the Israelis sponsored a thug, Yasser Arafat, on the theory that he could serve their interests, the U.S. has sponsored corrupt potentates in Riyadh on the theory they would protect ours.
The Israelis eventually realized the fatal mistake of their cynical bet on Arafat. It’s time that we realize that we made a version of the same mistake by sponsoring the House of Saud.
One reason that the Bush administration probably hesitated in making a break with Arafat is that the implications of a serious push for reform are so momentous: Our relationships with the Saudis and other Arab allies will necessarily be endangered by a new emphasis on openness and liberty.
But the administration has finally realized the mistake of treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the cause of the Middle East’s troubles, rather than a symptom — a symptom of the failed Arab governments all around Israel that want to divert attention from their own repression and corruption by making war.
Israel will probably be hated in the region for a long time, but there is no reason to believe that ordinary Arabs don’t want decent working economies, good schools, and governments that don’t steal from them.
All the Arabists in the U.S., the supposed friends of the Arabs, have never bothered to agitate for those things, instead simply aping the propaganda of the Arab governments that stand in the way of progress in the region.
Yesterday, Bush said “enough,” and will dare to work toward the brighter future for Arabs that their “leaders” have never had an interested in creating.