Ten years after the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, one year after Palestinian dictator Yasser Arafat's death and in the midst of crises provoked by the miscalculations of Iranian and Syrian rulers is a good time to talk about the importance of leaders. Issues of personality and capabilities are vital, especially in countries where leader have lots of autonomy. All Arab rulers are dictators but are somewhat constrained by the need to keep their elites happy and take into account the reactions of neighboring states. Iran's president has the added problem of a spiritual guide looking over his shoulder. Israel's prime minister, as head of a democratic state, faces real elections, cabinet politics and his own party. Yet, as shown recently by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's handling of the Gaza withdrawal, it is still possible for Israel's leader to do what he wants. If I had to single out one critical factor about Middle East leaders it is their choice between two basic courses of action. The first approach, common in the rest of the world but rarely seen in this region, is adjusting strategy, policy and goals to conditions. The alternative is ignoring or distorting the actual situation - or substituting a public relations campaign for a substantive response - giving top priority to preserving the existing system. What distinguishes these two paths is clearly not the difference between a pragmatic and irrational policy. For if a regime can survive by fighting or by ignoring the reality of the challenges it faces, that behavior is a practical strategy. INDEED, WHAT most characterizes the Middle East is that governments can go on for years waging losing battles, holding ridiculous ideologies and pursuing disastrous economic policies. Such things are not supposed to happen but they do, constituting the core of modern Middle East history. Of course, there is a price to pay. Arab countries generally are falling behind the rest of the world - a fall sometimes cushioned by the giant pillow of oil revenues - and their citizens are not happy. Still, the systems survive, elites keep their privileges, leaders stay in power and key ideas are preserved. That, in a sense, is success. It could even be argued that those who have tried to adjust are in greater peril than those who have not. To be an Arab moderate is more risky than to be an Arab terrorist. In Iraq today, those who seek moderation, development and democracy are most at risk. Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat - who recognized the absurdity of continuing the Arab-Israeli conflict, trying to unite the Arab world and preferring the USSR over America - was assassinated. So was Rabin, though the great difference between them is that Israelis largely accept Rabin's views. The place in the Arab world where real change is most apparent is in the Persian Gulf's smaller states, notably the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. It is economics and not politics that count there. The level of freedom and of responsive, if not always representative, government is rising. Many see ideology as a foolish distraction, though they still throw around slogans to appease revolutionaries and reactionaries alike. In the present environment, though, at a time when the old systems are under challenge from inside and out, the biggest mistake a dictator can make is to go too far. They stand atop precarious cliffs and, if they become believers in the mirages of their own creation, are likely to fall. That is what happened to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. To put it another way, combining propaganda and caution is the best way to survive. This lesson is well understood by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and by the Saudi royal family. Even Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, compelled by his wacky chameleon quality more than logic (though his son seems pretty smart on this point), has gotten the mix right. This is not the time to push too hard, to try to implement the heady dreams of total victory, Arab nationalism, Islamism and so on. Some Palestinian leaders understand this but cannot get the great majority to awake from the opium-like dreams foisted on them by hatred, Yasser Arafat and Islamist extremism. They are thus doomed to failure, probably for a whole generation. BUT THOSE most imperiled are the inexperienced leaders of Iran and Syria, intoxicated by ideas. In Syria's case, Bashar Assad has to remember that he heads a regime resting primarily on the enthusiastic support of his 12-percent minority Alawite community, with a military establishment ripe for the scrap yard and with no real ally. Meanwhile, he tries to bluff his way through sponsoring terrorism, subverting Lebanon, waging war against the United States in Iraq, coddling radical Islamists and doing nothing to modernize his economy. As for Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a very dangerous man. He has surrounded himself with hardliners from both intelligence and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. While many noted his call to destroy Israel, few pointed to an equally significant theme in his speech: the open advocacy of terrorism and confirmation that Iran would support it. He also thinks he can slap around and humiliate the West by fooling it regarding Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons. Here, of course, one must show respect for the validity of the "irrational" policy path of Middle East dictators. Ahmadinejad and Assad may get away with what they are doing, just as Arafat and Assad's father did and as Saddam Hussein almost did. But at least now it seems less likely they can do so than in the past. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and edits Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies.