Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Middle East – Cause for Optimism?

On last night’s Nightline, Ted Koppel’s guests were Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, and Tom Friedman, columnist for the NY Times. The discussion centered on whether or not the recent successful elections in Iraq represented a “tipping point” in the campaign to make Iraq a democratically governed, pluralistic society and, perhaps, transforming the entire Middle East. The tone of the show was, I thought, truly remarkable. There was some real optimism expressed as recent events in that part of the world were recounted; the successful elections in Afghanistan, the successful Palestinian elections, the agreement of the Israeli government to begin dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza, the mass demonstrations (with a decidedly anti-Syrian tone) in Lebanon during the funeral of Rafik Hariri and of course, the Iraqi elections. Other items that could be added to the list are Libya’s rejection of WMD and rejoining the community of nations (though certainly not as a democracy), the recent elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (feeble as they were) and the attempt by some real opposition candidates to run against Hosni Mubarek in Egypt. Add to that the scene of Iraqi’s being able to vote in Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and the U.A.E. (as well as other countries outside of the Middle East) – that must have been passing strange to the locals. If one would have predicted these events in the weeks and months after 9/11, they would have been certified as insane.

I don’t know if we’ve reached a “tipping point” or not. I do know that the changes in the Middle East in the past several months have been remarkable.

Thomas Friedman’s current column (subscription required) talks about the “Arab street” and what it may now represent; a desire for normalcy. I agree. In my 8 years in Saudi Arabia, I got to know people of many nationalities; Saudis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, Tunisians, Pakistanis, Indians, Pilipinos, etc. At one time, we had people from at least 28 different nationalities working together. Once the ice was broken and you began a real one-on-one with them, you found that they are not so different than we Americans. They’re worried about their jobs, their housing, and their kids. They’re concerned with the world around them. They just want to live normal lives. Maybe, hopefully, they may now have a chance to get their wish.

So what’s next? Well, if I was Bashar Al-Asad, I’d be a bit concerned about now. The Syrians can make no persuasive case for keeping their troops in Lebanon. World focus is now on them. Recall UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in October of last year. It calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and ending their interference in Lebanese affairs. And, they’ve become surrounded with countries that democratically elect all or part of their governments; Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and now Iraq. Elections for the National Assembly in Lebanon will be held this coming spring. It will be interesting to see if a) the Syrians try to interfere and b) if the removal of Syrian troops becomes a campaign issue.

Yes, I know, this could all go to hell in a hand-basket tomorrow. But somehow I don’t think so. And I think now is the time for all Americans of good will to find some way to help make the new Iraq a success. I will be posting on this subject in the very near future.

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