Beinstein column: Patience with the Arab world
In light of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia allowing women to drive, giving more space for entertainment venues, and generally promising more freedom for his people, the question is: What should we make of all this?
Is it a cynical maneuver to cover up for the Kingdom’s continual misdeeds or a realistic approach to grow his country’s economy? As somebody who used to be as cynical as could be about the KSA, I have to say we’re better off with the latter approach. Here’s why.
Radical democracy in the Middle East proved an epic failure. Whether it was President Bush’s call for elections in the Palestinian Territories or Obama’s in Egypt, both men’s philosophy of universal liberalism failed. Successful political parties in the Middle East from those in Lebanon to Iraq all ran on very anti-Israel platforms, promising to wipe off a Jewish presence in Jerusalem. This of course is unacceptable to all those who support a Jewish homeland and want to partner with a vital national security ally.
Instead, let’s look at a country like the United Arab Emirates. Based on a model similar to Singapore’s, its people are offered ample educational, economic and health care opportunities. Those who want to get ahead can, enjoying the full benefits of a good standard of living. And yet they are prohibited from having any real say in the country’s foreign policies.
This isn’t to say its government has been perfect. The 9/11 Report proves the government’s relationship to some terrorism financing, and yet the UAE’s support for hostile actors is much tamer than it would be if its people were truly in charge.
For those who began to express doubt about the Iraq War, President Bush often liked to cite the example of South Korea. In the 1950s, many critics claimed democracy could not work in an old Confucian society like Korea’s. Those critics were eventually proven wrong, with South Korea a shining example today of what a free people can accomplish. But there was nothing intrinsic in Korean culture that was so hostile to our values or interests.
Islamic extremism, on the other hand, if given a full voice, could prove disastrous to American interests.
This isn’t to say democracy in the Arab world could never work. At points in their history, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia offered glimpses of hope. In fact that’s what Paul Wolfowitz and Obama often clung to — their experiences with moderate Islam in Indonesia.
But whatever moderation existed in their Indonesia is far from the case in the heartland of the Arab world. A girl my age from Saudi Arabia said her religion prohibits any relations with Israel. Another Muslim from France, with a Tunisian and Algerian heritage, said Islam requires complete Muslim control of Jerusalem. She had no issue with the Jewish religion or its people but she loathed the Zionists (most Jews, definitionally, support a Jewish homeland in Israel, so the distinction is murky).
Living in the world as it is is usually not a fun option. Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler? Socialism or fascism? Theocracy or militant atheism? And yet at times in our history we really do have to choose. Bashar al-Assad of Syria really does protect Christians, and who would replace him? The average Arab peddler in Riyadh probably hates Israel way more than the Saudi family does. And there really are young Arabs from places like Dubai that study in the West who want a better life for their people.
And, slowly and cautiously, such people might really make things better for themselves and the world. And that kind of hope, a practical hope, is far less utopian than those dreamed up by some of the Oval Office’s most recent occupants. Let’s hope, then, for a Middle Eastern policy borne in reality, anchored by history, and captained by a wise commander. That’s our best bet, by far.
Alex Beinstein is a millennial who writes from Carbondale and grew up in Aspen. He was a Republican primary congressional candidate in 2016. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent.
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