I found this an interesting read.
The Promise of Liberty
The ballot is not infallible, but it has broken the Arab pact with tyranny.
BY FOUAD AJAMI
Tuesday, February 7, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
So, some now say, a people led for more than three decades by Yasser Arafat, a man who dodged all moral and political responsibility, have flunked a great democratic test. It wasn't a pretty choice that the Palestinians were presented with: the secular autocracy of plunder and pretense represented by Arafat's inheritors on the one side and the cruel utopia of the Hamas hard-liners on the other. This was where Palestinian history led. Ever since the Palestinians had taken to the road after 1948, that population had never been given the gift of political truth. Zionism had built a whole, new world west of the Jordan River, but Palestinian nationalism had insisted that all this could be undone.
An Arab intellectual of discerning intelligence, the Moroccan historian Abdullah Laroui, caught the logic of this refusal to accept history's verdict. "On a certain day," Palestinians believed, "everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled; in this way will justice be dispensed to the victims, on the day when the presence of God shall again make itself be felt." There is, then, nothing distinctive or unique about Hamas's refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish state on the land. Its secular predecessors and alternatives had not been possessed of much greater realism.
This was not a defeat of President Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" that has just played out in Gaza and the West Bank. The claim that the bet on Arab democracy placed by the president has now been lost is shallow and partisan. These were Palestinians who voted a mix of incoherence and legitimate wrath at a ruling political class that had given them nothing but false bravado and fed them on a diet of maximalism. For decades, the outside world had asked precious little of the Palestinians. Arafat, the Maximum Leader of their movement, had never owned up to any historical responsibility, and there were always powers beyond waiting to bail him out, to wink at his deeds of terror, to subsidize the economy of extortion and plunder that he and his lieutenants, and his security services, had brought with them to the Palestinian territories in the aftermath of the peace of Oslo.
It was with this ruinous indulgence of the Palestinians that George W. Bush was to break in the summer of 2002, when he gave the Palestinians a promise of American support contingent on their renunciation of terror. Where American diplomacy during the Clinton years had averted its gaze from Arafat's cynical use of deeds of terror, Mr. Bush had put that Palestinian leader beyond the pale. The claims of "victimhood" would no longer acquit the Palestinians; they would now be held responsible for the politics, and the history, they made. It proved hard for the Palestinians to make that adjustment, but there can be no denying that a measure of sobriety came into their world. The Arabs who had granted the Palestinians everything and nothing at the same time had drifted away from the cause of Palestine. The center of political gravity in Arab lands had shifted from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf; Ramallah was of little consequence when compared with the sea lanes of the gulf, and the fight in the Arabian Peninsula between the forces of order and those of religious bigotry. The romance of the "children of the stones" had subsided. Heartless and unsentimental, Arab society, in the midst of another windfall of oil wealth, now sought a reprieve from political and religious furies. A stock frenzy has taken hold in the Arabian Peninsula and the gulf; the tales of Palestinian woes would no longer hold other Arabs.
From the fury and the ruin of the second intifada, Palestinian society had emerged empty-handed. What it had going for it was the power of Israel's political center, the historic decision on the part of mainstream Zionism to be done with the moral and political burdens of occupation, and to be done with its entanglement with the Palestinians. The most unlikely of political leaders, Ariel Sharon, before illness caught up with him, had picked up the mantle of the late Yitzhak Rabin. It was time to get Gaza out of Tel Aviv, and time to let the Palestinians shape their own political world. Arafat's political heir, Mahmoud Abbas, would try to wean his people away from the addiction to failure and maximalism. He was an ordinary leader for a postheroic era; he wore no kaffiyeh, packed no pistol at his side. He was not enthralled with his image and his place in Palestinian history. The problem lay in his weakness: He had promised to cap the volcano in the Palestinian street. One Law, One Authority, One Gun, he had proclaimed. But the political culture of Palestinian nationalism had succumbed to the romance of violence; authority issued from a good throwing arm and from the rifle. Mr. Abbas could not deliver: The warlords of the security services, and the diehards of Hamas, were masters of their own domains.
The Palestinian society that headed into this latest election was bound to falter. What exactly was the difference between the masked men of Hamas and the masked men of Fatah's Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade? Two convicted terrorists, Marwan Barghouti and Abu Ali Yatta, headed the Fatah list. And all in all, the Palestinian electorate voted for 14 members of Parliament now in prison. The Palestinians claimed that they were ready for a great compromise with Israel, yet voted for men and women steeped in historical denial. No national movement could be spared the logic of its own choices. On June 24, 2002, President Bush had given the Palestinians the equivalent of their own Balfour Declaration: American diplomacy would support the "creation of a Palestinian state" so long as the Palestinians opted for a leadership "untainted by terrorism." In a historic break with the policy of the lowest common denominator, the Palestinians were put face to face with the reality of their world. "You deserve democracy and the rule of law. You deserve an open society and a thriving economy," Mr. Bush told the Palestinians. The open door extended to Arafat by American diplomacy would be slammed shut, as it had to be in the midst of a campaign against terror.
We needn't wring our hands over the choice made by the Palestinians in the elections. This is in keeping with a long history of political escapism. Now the Palestinians will have to live with the choice they have made: Let the leaders in prison, and let the Hamas leaders in their "spider holes" in Damascus, sort out Palestine's destiny. In their fashion, Palestinians are fond of appropriating for themselves the themes of Zionist history, and the big Zionist narrative of dispersion and renewal. But Zionism was about self-help, and about restraint, and Zionism succeeded by pushing aside ideologues impatient with historical compromise. Contrast the restraint of the legendary Chaim Weizmann saying that the Zionists would settle for a state "the size of a tablecloth" with Hamas's insistence --and the bulk of Fatah as well--that the whole of Palestine, min al-nahr ila al-bahr, from the river to the sea, belongs to Palestinians and the historical outcome of the fight of the two nationalisms is easy to understand.
It was not historical naiveté that had given birth to the Bush administration's campaign for democracy in Arab lands. In truth, it was cruel necessity, for the campaign was born of the terrors of 9/11. America had made a bargain with Arab autocracies, and the bargain had failed. It was young men reared in schools and prisons in the very shadow of these Arab autocracies who came America's way on 9/11. We had been told that it was either the autocracies or the furies of terror. We were awakened to the terrible recognition that the autocracies and the terror were twins, that the rulers in Arab lands were sly men who displaced the furies of their people onto foreign lands and peoples.
This had been the truth that President Bush underscored in his landmark speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on Nov. 6, 2003, proclaiming this prudent Wilsonianism in Arab lands: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place for stagnation, resentment and violence for export." Nothing in Palestine, nothing that has thus far played out in Iraq, and scant little of what happened in other Arab lands, negates the truth at the heart of this push for democratic reform. The "realists" tell us that this is all doomed, that the laws of gravity in the region will prevail, that autocracy, deeply ingrained in the Arab-Muslim lands, is sure to carry the day. Modern liberalism has joined this smug realism, and driven by an animus toward the American leader waging this campaign for liberty, now asserts the built-in authoritarianism of Arab society.
Beyond Palestine, the skeptics circle Iraq, and single it out as their great illustrative example of the difficulty of grafting democracy onto Arab lands. "Identity politics," they say, trumped democracy in Iraq's elections of Dec. 15, and Iraqis voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. In its extreme variant, the skepticism about Iraq points to the victory of the big Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, as proof that an "Islamic republic" lurks in Iraq's future.
Granted the defeat of Shiite secularism, the election confirmed the pluralism and diversity of Iraq. The Kurds stayed with their leaders, the Sunni Arabs voted for rehabilitated elements of the Baath and for Islamists who had emerged as the standard-bearers of that community, while the United Iraqi Alliance swept the Shiite heartland in the south and the Middle Euphrates, and prevailed in Baghdad. The leaders of the big Shiite list were good at the political game; they ran under the banner of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, even as he declared that he was staying out of electoral politics this time around. The Shiites were the victims of a campaign of terror and vilification, and they sought shelter in that Shiite identity, and cast their votes for a big slate that would represent them in this time of discord. But the United Iraqi Alliance is a house of many mansions, and no sooner had the elections ended than the intra-Shiite struggle for primacy and spoils had begun. At any rate, the United Iraqi Alliance has secured 128 seats in a parliament of 275 members, well short of political domination. Its leaders would still have to scramble to put together a ruling coalition. They would need the consent of the Kurds, and of the Sunni Arabs.
There is no warrant in Iraq's elections for a theocracy, and a theocratic republic is only a scarecrow. Flying from Baghdad to Kurdistan, as I did last month, the traveler is easily given to the impression that one has crossed countries, and states of mind. The hills covered with snow, their very size and solitude after the clutter of Baghdad, the distinctiveness of Kurdish ways and the Kurdish language, are all a hedge against the unitary, command states that have wrecked the Arab world.
Our war in Iraq has smashed for good that despotic state, and the Iraqi political class is busy putting together the pieces of a national unity government. The broker at the center of this quest is the remarkable Jalal Talabani, the country's president, and no doubt the region's most literate and democratically minded head of state. There were laments that the elections had had their share of irregularities, but Iraqis now see the ballot as the arbiter of political life. (Oil, the ballot box and American power hold Iraq together, and the ballot box is America's gift to Iraq and the linchpin of our disengagement.) It will be checkered, this government now being cobbled together by the Iraqis; it will be claimed by the principal communities of the country. There may well be a Kurdish president and foreign minister, a Shiite prime minister and minister of interior, a Sunni Arab at the ministry of defense and so forth. But these are the compromises of politics, and they are better than any other arrangement in the lands around Iraq.
Hitherto, we had granted the Arab world absolution from the laws of historical improvement. We had ceded it a crippling "exceptionalism." We explained away our complicity in its historical decay as the price paid for access to its oil, and as the indulgence owed some immutable "Islamic" tradition. To be fair, we could not find our way to its politically literate classes, for they were given to a defective political tradition. American power now ventures into uncharted territory; we have shaken up that world, and broken the pact with tyranny. In the shadow of American power, ordinary men and women who had known nothing but the caprice of rulers and the charlatanism of intellectual classes have gone out to proclaim that tyranny is neither fated, nor "written."
The ballot is not infallible, and in Palestine we have now seen it reflect the atavisms of that society and the revolt against bandits and pretenders who had draped their predatory ways in the garb of secularism. But we can't hide behind "anthropology" and moral and political relativism. We can no longer claim that this is Araby, self-contained and immutable, under an eternal sky. We have rolled history's dice in the region, challenged its stagnant ways. And even where the ballot has not gone--in the Arabian Peninsula to be exact--there now can be felt a breeze of human and political improvement.
The belligerence that was loose in the peninsula two or three years earlier appears milder now, as new ideas of tolerance struggle to take hold. This assertion by George W. Bush that despotism need not be the Arab destiny is about the only bond between the United States and the Arab world. In its optimism, this diplomacy of freedom recalls that brief moment after the Great War when Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points held out the promise of liberty to those Arab and Muslim lands. To be sure, there are the "usual suspects" among the Arabs who are averse to the message and to the American messenger, and our pollsters and reporters know the way to them. But this crowd does not reflect the broader demand for a new political way. We have given tyranny the patience of decades. Surely we ought to be able to extend a measure of indulgence to freedom's meandering path.
Mr. Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor and director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is the author, among other books, of "Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey" (Vintage, 1999).
"So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3
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