Politics & Policy

Davos in the Desert, Part IV

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East last week. It took place by the Dead Sea in Jordan. Below is the fourth installment of his journal. For the first three, go here, here, and here.

On the stage of Plenary Hall is a Bahraini official: the sheikh in charge of economic development. Like the other Bahrainis, he speaks perfect American English, even including modern barbarisms such as “impact” as a verb. He says that we have to be careful, in these straitened economic times: careful not to “turn our backs” on trade, the lowering of tariffs, and — “dare I say it?” — globalization.

You get a far more robust defense of classical-liberal economics from the Bahraini government than you do from the American government — any branch now.

‐There is also Danilo Türk, an impressive guy: He is president of Slovenia. (Remember when it was all Yugoslavia to us — to us Americans?) What is not so impressive is that, in praising the Obama administration, he praises America’s decision to rejoin the U.N. human-rights council.

This is the council on which the world’s beauties have sat: Sudan, China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria — you know, all the beauties. They spend their time trying to make a pariah of Israel. They do a very good job of it.

Under the Bush administration, we Americans said, “How about, at a minimum, we don’t have genocidal governments on the council? Would that be okay?” The U.N. said no. So the Bushies said, “All right: We will no longer participate and pay.” The new folks have said, “Yes, we will.” So we are.

Pity.

‐John Kerry is present — and he is passing the global test, as always. He gives a list of current “challenges.” And on his list are “a strong Hamas,” “a strong Hezbollah,” and the election of a new Israeli prime minister, which “some people think presents more difficulties than opportunities.”

Gee, that’s nice: The newly elected democrat in Israel is linked as a “challenge” to two Iran-backed terror groups. Congratulations, Bibi!

Kerry notes that Arabs have come to recognize Iran as more of a threat than Israel. True. But why should Israel be seen as a threat at all? Whose country do they threaten?

The senator puts in a plug for the Arab Peace Initiative, saying that it is at last being “recognized” by the administration in Washington. To recap from earlier: The Arab Peace Initiative demands that Israel retreat to the original, 1948 borders, accept Palestinian refugees, and accept also a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That’s all! If Israel does that — and manages to stay intact — Arab nations will in turn recognize it.

Could work. Might not. Not easy, being Israel, as I have said too many times.

Kerry says, “There is a clarity in most minds about what the final s-” — you could hear the hiss of his ess. He was going to say “solution”: “final solution.” But, in the nick of time, he switches to “agreement”: “. . . final agreement looks like.” I sympathize with him: I’m always having to avoid “final solution,” too. Sometimes you slip.

He salutes “my friend Amr Moussa,” the forever secretary-general of the Arab League, the perfect representative of the Old Guard, a walking fossil — more potent than a fossil, I’m sorry to say. When the likes of Kerry salute the likes of Moussa, this tends to discourage Arab liberals and reformers.

Old Western pols such as Kerry always embrace Old Guard Arabs such as Moussa. They’re used to dealing with them. They’ve known them for decades. They meet at the same hotels, at the same conferences. This is part of the “stability” you hear about. And many Westerners would rather deal with autocratic types than with democrats. For one thing, there is no rotation in office. Year after year, the same guy is in the same position.

When’s Mubarak up for reelection again? How about King Abdullah (either one)? When will Moussa retire to some veranda?

Of course, John Kerry has been in the same seat — the same U.S. Senate seat — since 1985. But at least he faces reelection: genuine, democratic elections. In any case, I hope that he seeks out Arabs beyond the Old Guard: the critics of Amr Moussa, who want a new approach to Israel, and who are pledged to solving Arab problems, rather than blaming them on others.

As he continues his remarks, Kerry cites something new from the U.S.: “an absence of arrogance.” I’m not so sure about that. You?

And then he says something portentous. He says that, with all his experience, he has earned the right to speak “candidly.” You think he will talk turkey to this Arab audience. Instead, he talks about his recent speech before AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby. He and Vice President Biden have both spoken, one after the other. “We’re unflinchingly supportive of Israel, and will be,” Kerry says.

Funny, but, if I were an Israeli, I’d get a little nervous on hearing those words. Reminds me of an old line (which I first heard from Thomas Sowell, by the way): “I’m right behind you, pal — waaay behind you.”

Anyway, Kerry goes on to say that both he and Biden told AIPAC, “We know that the facts on the ground must change.” And “we were both very clear that the settlements must stop, settlements must freeze, and I am absolutely confident that President Obama is going to be strong and fair-minded in pressing that as part of the policy.”

So, that’s the big, daring, candid thing he has to tell this Arab audience. Israel must stop settling! The president will apply the appropriate pressure! A profile in courage, this JFK. Moussa must be loving it.

Alluding to the Bush administration, he says, “We lost eight years. We can’t afford to lose eight weeks, let alone eight months.” (I think he means to say “years” again. Not sure.)

Lost eight years, huh? Did we lose eight years under Clinton? Does Kerry not realize that the Bush administration peace-processed its rear off, especially in the second term? He can talk to Arab leaders, and Israeli ones, about Condoleezza Rice. Does he realize that Bush was the first president to call for an independent Palestinian state? Did he read the newspapers during the Annapolis gabs?

The Obama people, and Democrats at large, are always spouting this Year Zero stuff. Everything in the world starts now. All was dark and void, pre-O. And when will they stop campaigning against Bush? Ever?

Kerry again talks about the need to “avoid arrogance.” And I find myself thinking that this is pretty rich, coming from possibly the most arrogant figure in American politics. Besides which: No one has ever sounded more arrogant when proclaiming the need to avoid arrogance. The way to avoid arrogance is to, you know: avoid it.

‐Al-Arabiya, the TV network, hosts a debate here, about Iraq. On the panel is the Bahraini foreign minister, al-Khalifa — well, they’re all al-Khalifa — and he speaks superbly about what is at stake. So does the Iraqi vice president, Mahdi. He says, more than once, that he hopes “our Arab brothers will accept Iraq as it is.” He further says that “Iraqi pluralism is a source of our strength.”

At one point, he talks about an environment of democratic dissent in Iraq: “Any citizen can criticize me, and he is not exposed to punishment.” That may seem sort of silly and plain to a Westerner. To a Middle Easterner — that may well seem amazing.

Never has Amr Moussa been more depressing, in my experience. He virtually taunts Mahdi, about the Iraqis’ cooperation with foreigners: with Americans. Why did Arab governments not support the Iraqi democrats, at the outset? Moussa says it was because of the Americans: who had invaded, and were controlling and governing. And he says that there should be no external influences on Iraq: not al-Qaeda, not the United States.

What does Mahdi have to say to that? He says, “There is a difference between our friends and our enemies” — those who are trying to help us stay alive, and those who are trying to kill us. Sometimes, in debate — especially when the Amr Moussas are involved — you have to state the elementary.

I remember these conferences, back several years ago. The Old Guard was very, very nervous. Winds of change were blowing through the Middle East. The old order was being threatened. Democracy was knocking at the door. These days, the Old Guard, including Moussa, is quite relaxed. They are even cocky — struttin’ around. They believe the pressure is off. And I’m afraid they are right.

‐Let me end this installment with something positive — something happy and encouraging. There is a great deal of good going on in the Middle East: people trying to help others, in multifarious ways. There is a lot of “social entrepreneurship,” as some people call it. Certainly the World Economic Forum people use this phrase.

Consider the King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation & Achievement. This is an award aiming “to celebrate and support young men and women throughout the Arab region who have pioneered innovative solutions to urgent social, economic and environmental challenges.” Please meet some of the contenders — starting with Abdelkareem Bedri, a Sudanese man, age 22:

While studying engineering at the University of Khartoum, [he] started looking for ways to put his education to work to make a difference in people’s lives. It didn’t take long before he conceived of a device that would translate Arabic sign language into an audible voice enabling the deaf to be heard.

Meet Abdinasir Nur, a 29-year-old Somalian man:

Civil war broke out in Somalia when [he] . . . was only eight years old. The conflict has continued more or less ever since, with an estimated two million Somalis currently facing a humanitarian crisis, including chronic food shortages.

Nur started Somali Youth for Peace and Development. He did not do nothing.

A 27-year-old Palestinian woman, Lana Hijazi, started “a mobile-phone-based job-matching service.” A 21-year-old Egyptian man, Motaz Gendia, started the Life Free of Smoke Association. And here is Rabee’ Zureikat, a 29-year-old Jordanian man:

On a trip to southern Jordan in 2007, [he] visited the rural community of Ghor Al Mazra, whose people, the Ghawarna, had long experienced discrimination due to their darker complexions and poor living conditions. [Interesting to have these words in an official Jordanian publication.] Deeply moved by those he met — and concerned about growing social divides in his country — Rabee’ started a charity drive to collect and distribute clothing.

Take one more — Rawan Abu al-Failat, a 23-year-old Egyptian woman: 

[She] created the project “Raneen: Audio Library for Children” with the goal of bringing stories to life for young people, ages 5 to 16, while improving their listening and Arabic language skills.

Rawan, who is blind, grew up with a passion for hearing stories, which later translated into her interest in drama and the performing arts. . . .

It’s easy to get cynical about the Middle East. Try not to. Many people, including those in lowly positions — maybe especially them — are trying to improve life. In an earlier installment of this journal, I spoke of my amazement at the effort some people expend in behalf of others. This is the sort of thing I meant. People say that Arab countries are sinkholes, cesspools, basketcases, not worth bothering with. Hopeless. It isn’t so.

Thank you, dear readers, and catch you tomorrow.

#JAYBOOK#

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