(Washington, D.C.): One of the most astute, and courageous, observers of the Arab world is one of its own, Fouad Ajami. Rarely has his trademark brand of candid and insightful analysis been more at odds with the conventional wisdom — or more of a needed corrective — than at present.
In particular, President Bush should draw on Dr. Ajami’s assessments contained in an lucid and illuminating essay that appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal to recalibrate his Administration’s increasingly misdirected policy towards the Middle East front in the war on terror.
Only by understanding, as this distinguished expert does, the double games being played by the region’s Arab dictatorships; by exposing their transparently insincere concern for the plight of Palestinians; by reestablishing the essential principle that the regions’ nations and others are either with us or against us in this global struggle; and by demonstrating that the latter will pay a price for opposing us, while we will stand steadfastly with the former, can Mr. Bush hope to restore credibility, to say nothing of momentum, to American leadership in the war we must fight.
By Fouad Ajami
The Wall Street Journal, 10 April 2002
The sky won’t fall in Araby. Entrenched regimes, which have mastered precious little save the art of staying in power, will not be stampeded by the crowds who chant in support of Yasser Arafat. This is not a “crisis” of American foreign policy playing out in Ramallah, and reverberating in Amman, Cairo, and Beirut.
Instead of being alarmed, we should keep our focus on the campaign against terror. We do the Arabs no favor if we pick up the false trail of Arafat, and let the new war against terror be trumped by old Arab obsessions with Palestine.
The claim that there is “disarray” in American foreign policy — made by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who should know a thing or two about disarray — is fatuous. There is no conceivable American diplomacy on the Palestinian question that could still the furies of the jihadists. The policy of the Bush administration has been on the mark. Assertive and unyielding, it has pursued the monumental task of taking on the culture of terror — its infrastructure, its fronts, the whole intellectual and psychological edifice that justifies terror by virtue of a Palestinian alibi.
Care should be exercised as we rush in to broker cease-fires: There is a whole Arab and Islamic world beyond Nablus and Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. Primacy must still belong to the larger struggle to rid the Arab world of its malignancies, to thwart the jihadists and those who would cede them political ground.
Arafat’s game is transparent: He wishes to overwhelm Operation Enduring Freedom with his own war against Israel. And for his troubles, he seeks the rewards of days past. There shall come his way financial backing from Iraq and the Gulf states. (A commercial street in Baghdad has just been named for him.) And there shall be offered him and his people the false promise that the Arabs have offered Palestinians ever since the unfolding of their encounter with Zionism: that the cavalry is on its way, that demonstrators are about to set the world ablaze and come to the rescue of Palestine.
The sad truth of history is that the Palestinians opted for pragmatism just once — when they broke with Arab legends and made peace at Oslo. Then, they returned to the world of nations, and secured a political turf of their own. The new storm is but a return to the old ways.
In vast swaths of the Arab world, people know the truth of their condition but cannot utter it. Terror silences them. There is no deliverance, they know, if the cult of “martyrdom” is sanctified. There are embattled people who are eager for their world to be done with the furies of Islamism. The American victory in Afghanistan, and the promise that this new war has grander moral ambitions than the war that was fought against Iraq a decade ago, emboldened Arabs keen to retrieve the ground that religious and political radicalism had conquered. There is hope that there might be educational reform, and that radical preachers might be tamed.
The Arab regimes that tell us that they are about to fall are conceding their own illegitimacy. The Arabs should be granted no special waiver from the imperatives of political reform — especially not by an America with its own quest for a just retribution against terror. For the good part of a decade, American policy averted its gaze from the malignant anti-Americanism at play in Arab lands, in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. An American “Balfour Declaration” was granted the Palestinians by President Clinton, but the anti-American terror paid that diplomacy no heed.
Yet we should know that there is quiet approval in Arab lands — among decent men and women who harbor no illusions about warlords and preachers of zealotry — of America’s campaign against terror. Our pundits here or in Europe may have been troubled by the “axis of evil” remarks of President Bush, but there were many Arabs who savored the clarity.
The crowds which have taken to Arab streets ought to be viewed with skepticism. The mind and the mood of a culture are difficult things to read. For all the public fury, a measure of introspection settled on the Arabs after Sept. 11: Those were their sons who had flown into those towers, those are their radical children on the run the world over. Psychologically, the protests over the troubles in Israel and the West Bank were an opportunity to escape the scathing judgments of others. If everyone is guilty, no one is guilty: Why dwell on the terror of Mohammed Atta when there are other terrors?
We can’t impose a “settlement” of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle: That would be hubris. And we can’t fall for the myth that Palestine is what ails Egypt, for example, or Iraq, and that al Qaeda’s adherents are driven also by the passions of Palestine. We can’t hold our own war hostage to Arafat’s campaign of terror. That world is what it is, and we shall not be given a warrant for a strike against Iraq, or a reprieve from anti-Americanism, by accommodating Arafat or the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.
There is a truth we should know: In the Arab world that beckons American power and hectors it at the same time, there are people terrified that the young men — and now young women — of terror may yet prevail. In the aftermath of victory in Afghanistan, these people saw prospects of deliverance. We owe them and ourselves fidelity to this new campaign. We need to reiterate to them that the truth of this campaign against terror holds in Netanya and Kabul, and that the way out of political ruin is an Arab break, once and for all, with the false consolations of terror.
Mr. Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of “The Dream Palace of the Arabs” (Vintage, 1999).