Monday, July 10, 2006

"Tough love" in the Arab world

Richard Fernandez of Belmont Club applies his thoughtful and complex mind to the question of the pace of attitude change in the Arab world.

Fernandez offers evidence that one of the side-effects of the Iraqi war--and have no doubt of this, it was an intended effect--is that many of the Iraqi people are starting to think in fresh ways, rather than to march in lockstep with the propaganda rife in their part of the world.

He bases some of his assertions on a fascinating post at Iraq the Model, which points out how Iraqi opinions on Hamas and the Palestine/Israel question differ from those of their neighbors:

The reactions I gathered were posted on an Arabic forum on the BBC Arabic website. About three dozens of comments were made by Iraqis both inside Iraq and in exile and all these comments were supportive of Israel or at least against Hamas as far as the topic is concerned except for only three comments; that's a 10:1 ratio while as you probably have guesses, the opposite ratio is true about the comments by the rest of Arabs.

Fernandez believes that the experience of taking responsibility for one's own political life has had the ripple effect for Iraqis of enhancing their ability to make objective judgments. I would caution that, in the particular instance of Iraqi attitudes towards Palestine and Israel, one other factor is operating: during the Saddam years Palestinians were encouraged to come to Iraq and were resented for having been given special privileges by the hated regime

But I still believe Fernandez is onto something. It's true in family life, as well: taking responsibility for oneself, bearing the consequences of one's decisions, is a good way to enhance learning and encourage more thoughtful future decision-making. Every parent knows that, although it can be very hard to let a child start doing this. But eventually, it's necessary.

Ah, but what if the decisions made are wrong, wrong, wrong? When to step in? What if a child is doing drugs, for example, or prostituting him/herself? How to prevent tragedy? Can one prevent tragedy? These decisions are hard enough in the relatively simple case of the family.

But countries are not children. And tough love has even larger consequences in the international arena than it does in the more personal environment of the family. In Palestine--a country that's never really been a country, and that for years has been treated as a sort of child by the international community--the Hamas victory is a case that might be likened to a dose of "tough love" after decades of a combination of enabling (Palestinians being on the perennial UN dole) and tyranny (the Arafat regime as harsh parent). In the last election, the Palestinian people were encouraged to take charge of their own destiny. The results, unfortunately, seem to have enhanced their tendencies for destruction, both of themselves and of others.

I wrote earlier that there was some evidence that, in that Hamas election, many Palestinian voters didn't take their responsibility as seriously as they might have, and voted for Hamas as a sort of protest and a game, not ever thinking the group could actually win. When all the possibilities in an election seem deeply flawed (and what election isn't like that, if you think about it?), that's a danger, and not just in Palestine. But in Palestine the flawed options were, unfortunately, far more deeply flawed than in most other countries, due to its especially sad history and deep marination in hatred, dependence, and tyranny.

The alternative to democracy in the Arab world so far has been dictatorship, tyrannical or at times relatively benign. Every dictatorship is a sort of infantalizing of its people, whether the parent be cruel or kind.

The Iraq war set up an experiment in something very different. Like all experiments, the outcome is as yet unknown. Democracy was initially an experiment in this country as well, although the special circumstances of its birth favored a good outcome. The birth pangs in Iraq have been bloody, but, along with Richard Fernandez, the brothers at Iraq the Model, and Michael Yon, I am encouraged by signs that the Iraqis may indeed be--as Fernandez puts it--engaged in "constructing a future for themselves, which...will eventually be rational and intelligent."

Or, as rational and intelligent as one can hope for when we flawed specimens, human beings, are involved.

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