All the good things that have happened in the Mideast might not fill up even 800 words.
By BARRY RUBIN
Last week I wrote a column on how incredibly bad the Middle East looked from the standpoint of 15 years ago, just after the Kuwait war. To tell you the truth, when I put all the evidence together I was astounded at how compellingly negative was the picture.
All the hopes of 1991 had been dashed, including hopes for moderation, pragmatism, change in Iran, Arab-Israeli peace, an end to terrorism, and so on. And then I ended by joking that I would like to write something about all the good things that have happened in the region but this might not fill up even 800 words.
That's 109 words already but let me try to look at the positive side - the oil barrel being half full so to speak. Let's see now:
â€¢ Radical Islamists have not yet taken over any Arab country, with violent revolts in Algeria and Egypt being put down. True, Hamas now rules the Palestinians and Islamists are making gains in several places but they are still stuck in opposition.
â€¢ Syrian forces have withdrawn from Lebanon and that country's peculiar version of democracy has been restored. Hizbullah is formally in the government but is being outmaneuvered. There is still some terrorist violence but far less and the Lebanon-Israel border, despite problems, is far quieter than it has been in the past.
â€¢ Women can now vote in Kuwait, have more rights generally in the smaller Gulf states (that is, other than Saudi Arabia) and Morocco has a progressive family law. One might say that there has been less of an advance than might have been expected but it's something.
â€¢ There is a liberal, pro-democratic movement now in the Arab world. It might be a distant third behind Arab nationalism and Islamism but still there is more moderate dissent and pragmatic argument than has existed in the last halfcentury. (Though Islamists might end up being the main beneficiaries of elections and more openness.)
â€¢ Saddam Hussein has been overthrown as Iraq's dictator. Obviously, the country is still in serious trouble but the most vicious, evil and dangerous tyrant in the Arab world is sitting in a jail cell and on trial by his own people for his crimes.
â€¢ Iraq has a chance of becoming a stable democracy, not a trouble-free one but it is a real possibility. Kurdish rule in the north has generally been a success, though critics of the regime are still being persecuted for complaining about corruption and other shortcomings.
â€¢ Speaking of the dead, you can add in Syria's late dictator Hafez Assad (though given his successor-son's behavior that might be a loss) and the former Palestinian ruler Yasser Arafat (though his departure helped boost Hamas into power, didn't it?).
â€¢ The Taliban in Afghanistan has also been overthrown, though that country's situation is no bed of roses either but still it is an improvement.
â€¢ Egypt and Jordan have signed and largely implemented peace treaties with Israel. A few other states have moved in the direction of peace.
â€¢ Israel is more secure, despite continuing terrorist threats, than it has been at any time in the past. Its economy has boomed, with gross domestic product doubling in real terms during the last 15 years. The West generally, though by no means completely, seems to be getting the novel idea that Israel wants peace and the Palestinian leadership doesn't. Most Western countries are even ready not to give aid to Hamas just because it is a genocidal terrorist organization. Now that's enlightenment.
â€¢ I guess that the regional media has opened up more, though a lot of the new satellite television stations are radical Islamist or nationalist, which means they are just spreading lies more effectively. Still, a wider variety of news and opinion is available.
â€¢ Most Iranians know that their extremist Islamist regime is a bad government and would like to see it changed, though they don't seem to have much prospect for doing it.
â€¢ Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons.
â€¢ Libya is, at least temporarily, ceasing to be an international threat and has abandoned its drive to get weapons of mass destruction, though Muammar Gaddafi is still a tyrant at home.
â€¢ The United States is the world's sole superpower and despite whatever mistakes it makes is generally a force for good in the region.
â€¢ The British government has a pretty positive Middle East policy. And that can also be said for the new German coalition and the Italian government.
â€¢ French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac will soon be leaving office and perhaps France might have a government that is not on the wrong side. (Well, they are at least trying to stop Iran's nuclear program.)
â€¢ The war on terrorism has enjoyed some real successes, though obviously it is far from won, to say the least.
There! That wasn't so hard, was it? I could add that there are a lot of courageous people in the region trying to express the truth about problems and solutions there as well as many in the West who deal with the real Middle East. But there sure could be a lot more.
And then there are two statements usually attributed to Winston Churchill which are rather parallel and both useful in this context. One is that when asked what it felt like to be about 90 years old he said, "Terrible. But consider the alternative." The other was that democracy is a terrible system except when compared to all the others.
There, don't you feel better? I know I do.
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