Nobody who cares about the future of the Arab world could fail to be moved by President Bush's call to replace the corrupt and vacillating Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, with a more open and democratic government. Arafat has been a disaster for his people, valuable perhaps as a symbol of resistance but now an obstacle to the peace and prosperity Palestinians deserve.
What made Bush's proposal to remove Arafat intriguing was that it came amid similar rumblings in Washington for greater democracy across the Arab world -- with "regime change" in Iraq, yes, but potentially in many other countries, too. I lump these pro-democracy strategies together as part of a "neo-imperialist" school, expressed powerfully by ex-officials such as Robert Kagan, Richard Perle and William Kristol.
No one who has spent any time in the Arab world would disagree that democratic change is long overdue. Ordinary Arabs know it -- that's part of why they crowd the mosques on Fridays, listening to the sheiks ridicule their corrupt and sometimes despotic leaders. The fact that democratization would benefit Israel and the United States is secondary to the overwhelming gift it would bring the Arabs themselves.
But how to bring these changes about? And how to do it without severe strategic damage to the United States? That's the question that worries me -- not least because some of the policymakers who are so eager to recast the Arab world appear to know almost nothing about it.
A cautionary word at the outset: Americans are never more dangerous, to themselves and to others, than when they are trying to do good. Many of our nation's greatest disasters have begun with that gush of American idealism for far-away causes that soon slows to a trickle when kids start coming home in body bags.
I watched that process happen in Lebanon, where we persuaded our allies to risk their lives on the promise that we would stay the course. When 241 Americans were killed by a truck bomb at the U.S. Marine barracks, the United States was gone in a few months -- leaving behind those who had trusted in our good intentions.
A similar story of seduction and abandonment could be told about America's neo-imperialist adventures at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, or with the Kurds in northern Iraq, or in a half-dozen other forgotten places. The inescapable truth is that America is not very good at staying the course. Perhaps Sept. 11 purged that feckless American attitude forever. I doubt that, but in any event we should be honest about America's history of unreliability as an empire-builder.
Still, let's assume that President Bush can build a broad national consensus for a long war of liberation in the Arab world. Let's say he's ready to face an Arab oil embargo and its severe economic consequences. So assuming all that, how should the United States proceed to democratize the Arab world?
The first point is so obvious people rarely consider it. Change won't come about unless ordinary Arabs want it themselves. If it comes at the point of an American cruise missile, many Arabs will view it as another defeat at the hands of Israel and its proxy, the United States.
That would be a disaster -- a recipe for military occupation of a bitterly resentful swath of the globe. And I'm sorry, Mr. Perle, but the idea that people will rally alongside Uncle Sam once they see our troops on the ground just doesn't cut it. That's what the Israelis thought would happen in Lebanon in 1982 -- and it did, for about a week. After that, they were sitting ducks.
A second, related point is that if we're really talking about changing the political culture of the Arab world, then "soft power" is as important as hard military power. By soft power I mean the network of institutions -- clubs, Internet cafes, women's groups, schools -- that make up the fabric of what we call civil society.
For example, when regime change finally came in Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic gave up his hold on power, it was because of the soft power exercised by ordinary Serbs. A million of them were in the streets, and they were there largely because of a network of groups that had been created in part by open grants from Europe and the United States.
Right now, someone who cares about the Arab world should create a new organization called "The Fund for Change" that can support such experiments in civil society, from Rabat, Morocco, to Basra, Iraq. It should be open, independent and democratic.
A final point is that U.S. military power, by itself, will not be sufficient to change the Arab world. If America (or Israel) could dictate outcomes by force, it would have done so long ago. The United States sponsored a wave of coups back in the 1950s, when the enemy was pro-Soviet secularism, rather than the Islamists. The CIA backed coups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan. And guess what? They were disasters. They just added to the power of the Arab nemesis of those days, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Reading some of the neo-imperialists, you're left with a nagging sense that they haven't thought some of these issues through. There's a giddy triumphalism in some of their work, as in Kagan's recent essay in Policy Review deriding the "psychology of weakness" in Europe and contrasting it with America's robust realization that "true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might."
This sort of talk is good for policy journals, but it won't do the job of changing the Arab world. That's a subtle challenge, but an overwhelmingly appealing one on this Fourth of July weekend. The right way to start is by getting more involved in the lives of the people we propose to help.
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