“George W. Bush has unleashed a tsunami on this region,” a shrewd Kuwaiti merchant who knows the way of his world said to me. The man had no patience with the standard refrain that Arab reform had to come from within, that a foreign power cannot alter the age-old ways of the Arabs. “Everything here—the borders of these states, the oil explorations that remade the life of this world, the political outcomes that favored the elites now in the saddle—came from the outside. This moment of possibility for the Arabs is no exception.” A Jordanian of vast political experience at the highest reaches of Arab political life had no doubt as to why history suddenly broke in Lebanon and could conceivably change in Syria itself before long. “The people in the streets of Beirut knew that no second Hama is possible; they knew that the rulers were under the gaze of American power, and knew that Bush would not permit a massive crackdown by the men in Damascus.”
My informant’s reference to Hama was telling: It had been there, in 1982, in that city of the Syrian interior, that the Baathist-Alawite regime had broken and overwhelmed Syrian society. Hama had been a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and a fortress of the Sunni middle class. It had rebelled, and the regime had unleashed on it a merciless terror. There were estimates that 25,000 of its people perished in that fight. Henceforth, the memory of Hama hung over the life of Syria—and Lebanon. But the people in the plazas of Beirut, and the Syrian intellectuals who have stepped forth to challenge the Baathist regime, have behind them the warrant, and the green light, of American power and protection.
To venture into the Arab world, as I did recently over four weeks in Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq, is to travel into Bush Country. I encountered people from practically all Arab lands and listened in on a great debate about the possibility of freedom and liberty. I met Lebanese giddy with the Cedar Revolution that liberated their country from the Syrian prison that had seemed an unalterable curse. They were under no illusions about the changes that had come their way. They knew that this new history was the gift of an American president who had put the Syrian rulers on notice. The speed with which Syria quit Lebanon was astonishing, a race to the border to forestall an American strike that the regime could not discount. I met Syrians in the know who admitted that the fear of American power, and the example of American forces flushing Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole, now drives Syrian policy. They hang on George Bush’s words in Damascus, I was told, the rulers wondering if Iraq was a crystal ball in which they could glimpse their future.
The weight of American power, historically on the side of the dominant order, now drives this new quest among the Arabs. For decades, the intellectual classes in the Arab world bemoaned the indifference of American power to the cause of their liberty. Now a conservative American president has come bearing the gift of Wilsonian redemption. For a quarter-century the Pax Americana had sustained the autocracy of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had posed as America’s man on the Nile, a bulwark against the Islamists. He was sly and cunning, running afoul of our purposes in Iraq and over Israeli-Palestinian matters. He had nurtured a culture of anti-modernism and anti-Americanism and had gotten away with it. Now the wind from Washington brought tidings: The United States had wearied of Mubarak and was willing to bet on an open political process, with all its attendant risks and possibilities. The brave oppositional movement in Cairo that stepped forth under the banner of Kifaya! (Enough!) wanted the end of his reign. It had had enough of his mediocrity, enough of the despotism of an aging officer who had risen out of the military bureaucracy to entertain dynastic dreams of succession for his son. Egyptians challenging the quiescence of an old land may have had no kind words to say about America in the past. But they were sure that the play between them and the regime was unfolding under George Bush’s eyes.
Unmistakably, there is in the air of the Arab world a new contest about the possibility and the meaning of freedom. This world had been given over to a dark nationalism and to the atavisms of a terrible history. For decades, it had been divided between rulers who monopolized political power and intellectual classes shut out of genuine power, forever prey to the temptations of radicalism. Americans may not have cared for those rulers, but we judged them as better than the alternative. We feared the “Shia bogeyman” in Iraq and the Islamists in Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia; we bought the legend that Syria’s dominion in Lebanon kept the lid on anarchy. We feared tinkering with the Saudi realm; it was terra incognita to us, and the House of Saud seemed a surer bet than the “wrath and virtue” of the zealots. Even Yasser Arafat, a retailer of terror, made it into our good graces as a man who would tame the furies of the masked men of Hamas. That bargain with authoritarianism did not work and begot us the terrors of 9/11.
The children of Islam, and of the Arabs in particular, had taken to the road and to terror. There were many liberal, secular Arabs now clamoring for U.S. intervention. The claims of sovereignty were no longer adequate; a malignant political culture had to be “rehabilitated and placed in receivership,” a wise Jordanian observer conceded. President Bush may not be given to excessive philosophical sophistication, but his break with “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in the Arab-Islamic world has found eager converts among Muslims and Arabs keen to repair their world, to wean it from a culture of scapegoating and self-pity. Pick up the Arabic papers today: They are curiously, and suddenly, readable. They describe the objective world; they give voice to recognition that the world has bypassed the Arabs. The doors have been thrown wide open and the truth of that world laid bare. Grant Bush his due: The revolutionary message he brought forth was the simple belief that there was no Arab and Muslim “exceptionalism” to the appeal of liberty. For a people mired in historical pessimism, the message of this outsider was a powerful antidote to the culture of tyranny. Hitherto, no one had bothered to tell the Palestinians that they can’t have terror and statehood at the same time, that the patronage of the world is contingent on a renunciation of old ways. This was the condition President Bush attached to his support for the Palestinians. It is too early to tell whether the new restraint in the Palestinian world will hold. But it was proper that Bush put Arafat beyond the pale.
It was Iraq of course that gave impetus to this new Arab history. And it
is in Iraq that the nobility of this American quest comes into focus. This was my fourth trip to Iraq since the fall of the despotism and my most hopeful yet. I traveled to Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah. A close colleague—Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations—and I were there to lecture and to “show the flag.” We met with parliamentarians and journalists, provincial legislators, clerics and secularists alike, Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds. One memory I shall treasure: a visit to the National Assembly. From afar, there are reports of the “acrimony” of Iraq, of the long interlude between Iraq’s elections, on January 30, and the formation of a cabinet. But that day, in the assembly, these concerns seemed like a quibble with history. There was the spectacle of democracy: men and women doing democracy’s work, women cloaked in Islamic attire right alongside more emancipated women, the technocrats, and the tribal sheikhs, and the infectious awareness among these people of the precious tradition bequeathed them after a terrible history. One of the principal leaders of the Supreme Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq, Sheikh Hamam Hammoudi, an elegant, thoughtful cleric in his early 50s, brushed aside the talk of a Shia theocracy. This Shia man, who knew a smattering of English, offered his own assurance that the example and the power of Iran shall be kept at bay: “My English is better than my Farsi, even though I spent 20 years in Iran.” He is proud of his Iraqi identity, proud of being “an Arab.” He is sure that the Najaf school of Shia jurisprudence would offer its own alternative to the worldview of Qom, across the border. He wanted no theocratic state in Iraq; Islam, he said, would be “a source” of legislation, but the content of politics would be largely secular. The model, he added, with a touch of irony, would be closer to the American mix of religion and politics than to the uncompromising secularism of France.
The insurgents were busy with their bombs and their plots of mayhem; Georgian troops guarded the National Assembly and controlled access to it. But the people were taking to a new political way. A woman garbed in black, a daughter of a distinguished Shia clerical family, made the rounds among her fellow legislators. Religious scruples decreed that she could not shake the hand of a male stranger. But she was proud and wily, a free woman in a newly emancipated polity. She let me know how much she knew about the ways and the literature of the West. American power may have turned on its erstwhile ally, Ahmed Chalabi. But his appearance in the assembly’s gallery drew to him parliamentarians of every stripe. He, too, had about him the excitement of this new politics.
A lively press has sprouted in Iraq: There are an astonishing number of newspapers and weeklies, more than 250 in all. There are dozens of private TV channels and radio stations. Journalists and editors speak of a press free of censorship. Admittedly, the work is hard and dangerous, the logistics a veritable nightmare. But no single truth claimed this country, no “big man” sucked the air out of its public life. The insurgents will do what they are good at. But no one really believes that those dispensers of death can turn back the clock. Among the Sunni Arabs is a growing recognition that the past cannot be retrieved, that it had been a big error to choose truculence and political maximalism. By a twist of fate, the one Arab country that had seemed forever marked for brutality and sorrow now stands poised on the frontier of a new political world. No Iraqis I met look to neighboring Arab lands for political inspiration: They are scorched by the terror and the insurgency, but a better political culture is tantalizingly close.
Women want the vote in Kuwait; the Lebanese clamor for the truth about the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and about the dark Syrian interlude in their history. Egyptians don’t seem frightened of the scarecrows with which the Mubarak regime secured their submission. Everywhere, the old order is under attack and men and women are willing to question the prevailing truths. There is to this moment of Arab history the feel of a re-enactment of Europe’s Revolution of 1848—the springtime of peoples. That revolution broke out in France, then spread to the Italian states, to the German principalities, to the remotest corners of the Austrian empire. There must have been 50 of these revolts—rebellions of despair and of contempt. History was swift: The revolutions spread with velocity and were turned back with equal speed. The fear of chaos dampened those rebellions.
As I made my way on this Arab journey, I picked up a meditation that Massimo d’Azeglio, a Piedmontese aristocrat who embraced that “springtime” in Europe, offered about his time, which speaks so directly to this Arab time: “The gift of liberty is like that of a horse, handsome, strong, and high-spirited. In some it arouses a wish to ride; in many others, on the contrary, it increases the desire to walk.” It would be fair to say that there are many Arabs today keen to walk—frightened as they are by the prospect of the Islamists coming to power and curtailing personal liberties, snuffing out freedoms gained at such great effort and pain. But more Arabs, I hazard to guess, now have the wish to ride. It is a powerful temptation that George W. Bush has brought to their doorstep.