The conservative take on Arab development


Yesterday we brought you the liberal understanding of the conclusions of the U.N.s recent Arab Human Development Report, courtesy of Tom Friedman at The New York Times. While all agree that the social conditions of the Arab world — the economic stagnation, cultural decay, rampant poverty in the face of staggering oil wealth — have worsened since the U.N. first took up the subject earlier this decade, Friedman saw a bright spot on the horizon, and in the West Bank of all places. The moral of that story? The incorruptability and transparency of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, showed the way to a new, better kind of Arab politics.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami gives a different perspective of the U.N. report. Echoing the neocon line, Ajami diagnoses the problem in the Arab world as a deficit of democracy and free-wheeling capitalism. Arabs have put their faith in the state, "and the states have failed." Despots control the Middle East due to "the absence of the countervailing power of property and the private sector." 

But Ajami’s most interesting contribution to what is sure to be a wave of self-satisfied commentary from the West about the failures of the East, is his unmasking of the supposed anti-Americanism that "suffuses" the report and his indictment of the Obama administration, which he says is intent on undertaking a more accomodating stance towards the autocratic Arabs, backing away from Bush’s freedom agenda:

There is cruelty and plunder aplenty in the Arab world, but these writers are particularly exercised about Iraq. “This intervention polarized the country,” they say of Iraq. This is a myth of the Arabs who are yet to grant the Iraqis the right to their own history: There had been a secular culture under the Baath, they insist, but the American war begot the sectarianism. To go by this report, Iraq is a place of mayhem and plunder, a land where militias rule uncontested.

For decades, it was the standard argument of the Arabs that America had cast its power in the region on the side of the autocrats. In Iraq in 2003, and then in Lebanon, an American president bet on the freedom of the Arabs. George W. Bush’s freedom agenda broke with a long history and insisted that the Arabs did not have tyranny in their DNA. A despotism in Baghdad was toppled, a Syrian regime that had all but erased its border with Lebanon was pushed out of its smaller neighbor, bringing an end to three decades of brutal occupation. The “Cedar Revolution” that erupted in the streets of Beirut was but a child of Bush’s diplomacy of freedom.

Arabs know this history even as they say otherwise, even as they tell the pollsters the obligatory things about America the pollsters expect them to say. True, Mr. Bush’s wager on elections in the Palestinian territories rebounded to the benefit of Hamas. But the ballot is not infallible, and the verdict of that election was a statement on the malignancies of Palestinian politics. It was no fault of American diplomacy that the Palestinians, who needed to break with a history of maximalist demands, gave in yet again to radical temptations.

Now the Arabs are face to face with their own history. Instead of George W. Bush there is Barack Hussein Obama, an American leader pledged to a foreign policy of “realism.” The Arabs express fondness for the new American president. In his fashion (and in the fashion of their world and their leaders, it has to be said) President Obama gave the Arabs a speech in Cairo two months ago. It was a moment of theater and therapy. The speech delivered, the foreign visitor was gone. He had put another marker on the globe, another place to which he had taken his astounding belief in his biography and his conviction that another foreign population had been wooed by his oratory and weaned away from anti-Americanism.

The crowd could tell itself that the new standard-bearer of the Pax Americana was a man who understood its concerns, but the embattled modernists and the critics of autocracy knew better. There is no mistaking the animating drive of the new American policy in that Greater Middle East: realism and benign neglect, the safety of the status quo rather than the risks of liberty. (If in doubt, the Arabs could check with their Iranian neighbors. The Persians would tell them of the new mood in Washington.)

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