Politics & Policy

Davos in Jordan, Part I

Dear friends: I’ve just returned from a meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, in Jordan. What, doesn’t the WEF meet in Davos, Switzerland? Yes, but for the past few years, it has also met in Jordan, in May. I’ll explain.

In 2003, after the invasion/liberation of Iraq, the WEF masterminds thought, “We need to seize the moment.” (And that’s their slogan, in Jordan: “Seizing the moment.”) “We need to do a Davos in the Middle East.” In short order, they created exactly that: a Davos in Jordan.

In January, they powwow in the Alps; in May, they powwow at the lowest point on earth–the Dead Sea. (They could meet on the Israeli side, but somehow . . . don’t.)

The Middle Eastern Davos lasts a little less long than the Swiss one: about three days, instead of about five. But it’s just as interesting, especially if you’re concerned about the fate of the Middle East, which often seems to equal the fate of the world.

What I propose to do is give you some notes, as from Switzerland–and, as from there, I will mix the light with the heavy, the trivial with the fearsomely grave. You know how it works.

Care to get started? Will run a few days.

‐Who are the attendees of Davos-in-Jordan? The roll call is similar to that in the Alps, although with a greater concentration of Arabs. There are foreign ministers, finance ministers, big businessmen, intellectuals, civil-society types–the works. We also have an actor or two, most prominently Richard Gere, a Davos fixture. King Abdullah presides over everything, both in the flesh and in the omnipresent photos of him. (There are also many photos of his late father, King Hussein.)

Who are the Americans? Well, from the administration, Laura Bush, if we can count her as from the administration (and I think we can). Bob Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state. Liz Cheney, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs–and daughter of you-know-who (and Lynne, too!). Margaret Spellings, the ed. secretary. And some members of Congress, most of them Republicans: Orrin Hatch, John Sununu, Gordon Smith, Norm Coleman. (Those are senators.) And Chris Shays and Jane Harman. (Those are U.S. reps.) If I’ve forgotten someone, and I probably have–please forgive me.

‐The meeting is held at the King Hussein bin Talal Convention Center, a vast, gleaming palace, which must have cost fortunes to build. What they do with the place the rest of the year, is hard to say. A good number of conventions would be required to recoup those costs.

As always in the Arab world, hospitality is first-rate, and the King Hussein Center happens to be stocked with lissome young ladies. Many are dressed in the uniform of the Royal Jordanian Airlines, and they are called “hostesses.” These uniforms are a real throwback, to the America of the 1950s or so. You remember that movie in which Leonard DiCaprio played that conman, who posed as a pilot for Eastern or something? You remember that bevy of fresh, eager, fetching stewardesses (and in those days, you could use the word “stewardess” — “flight attendant” was a long way off)? That’s what I’m talking about.

One evening, I chat with a senior, leftish British journalist, and the topic of those “hostesses” comes up. He confesses that he likes the throwback look, and feel. Hurrah for him.

Mind you, I don’t long for the days when women had to be young, trim, and pretty in order to work for airlines. I am merely reporting . . .

‐A panel discussion of Iraq features a compelling lineup–included in it are Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister; Hajim al-Hassani, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament; and Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. veteran. The Economist’s Xan Smiley moderates. (His name is pronounced “Zan,” as in “Alexander.”)

As regular readers know, Zebari is one of my favorite people on the world scene, an ex-Kurdish militant, a father of the new, democratic Iraq. It was a thrill of my life when he told off the U.N.–do you remember, dear readers? In December 2003, he said, “The United Nations as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years. Today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure.” Etc. That was one of the most stirring examples I ever saw of speaking truth to power.

Did I mention that this was at the U.N.–at the U.N. itself?

Before the panel discussion begins, I remind Zebari of this splendid telling off. We both grin and twinkle a bit over the memory of it.

Zebari leads off the Iraq panel with a speech making the salient points: It has been only eleven months since Washington transferred sovereignty to the Iraqis themselves–Iraq is not an occupied nation, but “an emerging democracy.” Last Jan. 30, “millions of citizens defied terror and death” to cast their ballots. The people are “hungry for democratic progress.” Unfortunately–and outrageously–”the insurgency persists,” as “Saddamites and foreign fighters” attempt to “foment civil war, undermine democracy, spread terror, and destroy our vision.” But Iraqis “will not have their future dictated by the atrocities of a few.”

He makes a smart reference to “the headlines,” which emphasize trouble over opportunity and gains. He talks of making every effort to involve Sunnis–who have been reluctant–in the political process. And he says that the country is “not ready to be self-reliant,” is not yet prepared for the U.S. and its allies to go. But the faster Iraq succeeds politically, “the sooner multinational forces can go home.”

Zebari decries “public agitation against democracy in the mosques and the media,” and says that Iraq “deserves respect from Arab and Islamic countries.” What’s more, a free, self-governed Iraq is realizable, and taking shape before our eyes: It is not “an intangible ideal.”

Next to speak is Hassani, the parliamentary head. He says that he agrees with everything Zebari has said, except for one point: “And we can disagree. This is the new Iraq, a democracy!” (Zebari said that Sunnis chose not to participate in the Jan. 30 elections, and Hassani insists that this was not voluntary, but a result of violence in Sunni areas.) Hassani explains that terrorists have infiltrated Iraq from neighboring countries. “I’m not saying that there are no Iraqis” in the insurgency, “but the majority of the car bombs” and other such acts “are done by foreign terrorists.” He criticizes some U.S. policies of the past: He says that de-Baathification was badly implemented, and that it was wrong to dissolve Iraqi security forces–they have had to start from scratch.

But “we are building a new republic, which is actually Iraq’s second republic.” (I can’t help thinking of that magazine, in Washington: If they want to know what a real new republic looks like, they should turn to Iraq.)

Not for the first time, I am struck by the bravery, wit, and determination of these Iraqi officials. As I learn throughout the conference, they all speak of “the change”–that’s their name for what has occurred in Iraq since March 2003: “the change.” And a beautiful phrase it is, here.

I would encourage you, too, not to treat lightly that little joke about disagreeing: The parliamentary speaker and the foreign minister disagree. In an Arab country, this is no common occurrence. The Iraqi situation should not be taken for granted, or minimized.

The third speaker is Sinan al-Shabibi, governor of Iraq’s Central Bank. He is the country’s Alan Greenspan. He apologizes for discussing something so dry as economics, rather than something so dramatic as politics, but notes that economics must have its place. “We are moving from a war economy to a peace economy, from a command economy to a market economy, from a highly centralized system to a federalized one”–and all of this takes time and effort. As he speaks, Shabibi impresses me as just the sort of man you want as central banker: sober, measured, factual.

Then it is the turn of Brahimi, who may be said to represent the Old Guard of Arab politics. When Zebari speaks of the “turning tide,” as he did–it is against Brahimi et al. that the tide is turning.

Brahimi starts in about Iraq, elaborating its failings. I wonder how the Iraqis feel about being lectured by the U.N., in the person of this careerist–but I don’t have to wonder for long: The miffed look on Zebari’s face, in particular, is priceless. Brahimi takes care to talk about “our Iraqi brothers,” but his irritation at them is obvious. They have gone too far, and they are making life difficult for Arab elites wherever they may be found.

About the insurgency, he says, “There is no doubt that there are foreign elements,” and, “There is no doubt that there are some acts of terrorism: What else do you call bombing a mosque, or targeting an imam?”

If you think that Brahimi will add a “but,” you are correct: “But there are definitely very legitimate aspects of the resistance that exists there, and it is terribly important, even if some of the manifestations are unacceptable, that you find a political solution to the problem.”

This is an important moment in the conference. Consider: Despite Brahimi’s provisos, he has called the insurgency “the resistance.” And he has called “aspects” of it “very legitimate.” Furthermore, he has described the bombing of mosques, and the targeting of imams, as terrorist–but I wonder how he feels about attacks on American troops, on Iraqi troops, on Iraqi policemen, on Iraqi parliamentarians, on Iraqi voters . . .

Brahimi concludes by saying “the war wasn’t popular” anywhere, including in Iraq, “but that is behind us now.” Both of these contentions are disputable.

Later, I will discuss Brahimi’s words, and other matters, with Foreign Minister Zebari. (Stay tuned.)

The fifth speaker in the Iraq forum is a professor from the University of Maryland, Shibley Telhami, who says, essentially, that, in order to be legitimate, Iraq must have the approval of other Arab and Muslim governments. At least that is my interpretation of what he says. My main thought: “Fat chance.” And “why should democracies depend for their legitimacy on the approval of non-democracies?” Telhami goes on to say that America is despised in the Middle East. But you have to ask the question, “By whom in the Middle East?” Fouad Ajami has just written a piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Bush Country.” And he is speaking of the Middle East, and the earthquake that the U.S. president has set off.

When it comes to Arab public opinion, you can pick the authority you like, I guess.

Telhami ends his remarks by saying there must be a “strong separation” in Arab minds between “the Iraqi effort” and “the American effort.” Arabs will want any Iraqi effort to succeed; they want the Americans to fail. I wonder how the two can be separated, the “Iraqi effort” and the “American effort”: They are one. The U.S. is helping–nay, enabling–Iraqis to attain their freedom. I wish they were able to do it on their own; but they are no more capable than the French were in the 1940s.

The last panelist to speak is Chris Shays, the moderate-to-liberal Republican congressman from Connecticut. Though a notorious DeLay-ite, I am generally an admirer of this man. Not today. He says that the State Department had “warned us” of how difficult Iraq would be, but “we didn’t listen.” Regrettably, we handed the project over to the Defense Department–and what a hash they made of it.

My understanding is completely different from Shays’s. As I understand it, defense wanted no occupation at all, or a very brief one–they wanted a quick turnover to the exiles (e.g., Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress). But State, CIA, and the others said, “Nothing doing,” and Bush went along. Hence, the occupation.

In praising the Iraqi election–an infinitely praiseworthy thing–Shays goes a little overboard. He says that Jan. 30 “worked better than any election in America,” which is of course absurd. He says that Iraqis are superior to Americans, because our turnout is shamefully low. Actually, Shays should know that a low voter turnout can be a sign of democratic health: Our system allows for freedom from politics; we are a nation of laws, not men; changes in office don’t cause great convulsions in our lives. A nation that can afford a low voter turnout is a lucky one.

The congressman emphasizes that Iraqis “did this election,” not Americans! Come on: Without the Americans, that election is unthinkable. The Iraqis begged us to defend them, so they could go to the polls–and we did. Self-abnegation is right and proper at international conferences (and always), but one can get carried away.

I should say, however, that Shays tells a nice story–sort of on himself. He observed those Iraqi elections, and watched the death-defiers put their fingers in the purple-ink jar. Wanting to show a kind of solidarity, he asked a poll worker–Iraqi, of course–whether he could dip his finger in the jar, too. “No!” said the worker. “You’re not an Iraqi!”

And last, he compares the Iraqi leaders to America’s Founders, who faced many obstacles, and performed gratifyingly. On this, I am completely with him.

After all the panelists have spoken, there is a short period left for questions from the audience–about eight minutes. And who should dominate this period but Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League. He is sitting in the middle of the first row. Even more than Brahimi, Moussa is the personification of the Old Guard, whose world is starting to crumble. And this panel has obviously gotten his goat.

Microphone in hand, he first chews out Xan Smiley, who began the session by saying that Iraq is “the most pressing problem” in the Middle East. You must not forget Palestine! cries Moussa. The moderator politely says, “I stand corrected.”

Then Moussa praises Shibley Telhami, for his criticisms of U.S. policy. The good professor nods somberly. They seem to be two of a kind, Moussa and Telhami: What George W. Bush is doing clearly horrifies them.

Finally, Moussa turns to the Iraqis, to hector them about the Sunnis: Why are they not participating in the government, why have you left them out of the process, what are you doing to mollify them? His point seems to be that the government can’t be legitimate if the Sunnis are unhappy.

You have to understand something that I discovered at this conference: The Sunni minority in Iraq is the most important group in the world. No other minority in any other Arab country is given the time of day. And what Arab governments treat their minorities with exemplary republicanism? No, the Iraqi Sunnis are the only minority that matters. In the long, nightmare decades of Saddam–the torture and mass-grave decades–did Moussa and the Arab League care about the Kurds, the Christians, the others?

Hajim al-Hassani is the first to answer Moussa, and he actually agrees that the government should be doing more to “reach out” to the Sunnis. He then confesses that he himself is Sunni–but he doesn’t think Iraqis should give such designations, because “we should all be Iraqis, without adherence to sect or ethnicity.” There is a statement of true Arab liberalism.

And I can’t help thinking: If a Sunni is speaker of the parliament, how shut out, or disdained, can Sunnis be?

It is utterly clear to me that Iraqis, today, are like the Israelis: They are held to a higher standard than anyone else in the region. The whole Middle East swims in tyranny and autocracy. But Iraq is scrutinized for democratic perfection. They must dot every “i” and cross every “t.” They’d better get used to it–and they are, it seems.

I should note here that I have not attempted a comprehensive report, even a full summary, of this session, as I won’t of others. I have jotted down some points I regard as significant, or at least interesting.

In any case, Xan Smiley closes the discussion by saying, “I’m sure that everyone wishes Iraq well, whatever our views three or four years ago.” I consider this a polite fiction. It is plain as day that not everyone wishes Iraq well. The Old Guard has much to lose by Iraqi success. The Iraqis have already filled Arab heads with dangerous ideas, such as self-rule. How far will it go? Amr Moussa, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Saudi princes, and the rest of that lot are supposed to swan around at conferences, denouncing Israeli policy in the West Bank, telling tales about Jenin, and so on. And now there is this reform fever.

‐I’ll close this installment with a vignette. I try to attend a subsequent panel, but have arrived late. The room is full–full to bursting. World Economic Forum staffers and security personnel are letting no one else in. About 15 of us are cooling our heels outside. The staffers matter-of-factly explain to us, “It is full.”

But then comes Amr Moussa, and he pushes past the staffers and the guards, like he owns the place. He has always owned these conferences! A man behind me says quietly, “They should tell Mr. Moussa it is full.” That is Sinan al-Shabibi, Iraq’s central banker. There I think I see the arrogance and presumptuousness of the Old Guard, in contrast with the new Iraq. I hope–so very much hope–that the Shabibis prevail over the Moussas.

See you for Part II?


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