Jewish World Review March 20, 2003 / 16 Adar II, 5763

Zev Chafets

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The big question: Can Arabs handle liberty? | The fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is going to provide an answer to one of the world's perennial chicken-and-egg questions: What makes the Arab world such a dreadful place?

There can hardly be any doubt that the members of the Arab League comprise the world's worst constellation of nations. There isn't a democracy among them. Even supposedly benign (that is, pro-American) dictatorships are repressive and xenophobic.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, there isn't a single elected parliament or honest court of law or decent university or independent newspaper.

Arab economies produce virtually nothing. Despite oil, most nations are impoverished. The Arab Middle East's only significant self-made export is terrorism.

Contemporary Iraq may be worse than some other Arab countries, but it is not appreciably different in its basic political, civic and economic values. You'd have a hard time picking Saddam out of a rogues' gallery composed of Syria's Bashar Assad, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Moammar Khadafy and the princes of the Saudi royal family.

Why are things this way? Have tyrannical governments imposed backwardness, intolerance, violence, poverty and intellectual sterility on captive populations? Or do these regimes simply reflect the values and desires of the people they rule?

President Bush is betting on possibility No. 1. As he portrays it, the Iraqi people are about to be liberated from an unpopular despotism in much the way the Italians were liberated in World War II.

"Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty," Bush said in his address to the world Monday. "The power of human liberty is felt in every life and every land. And the greatest power of freedom is to overcome hatred and violence and turn the creative gifts of men and women to the pursuit of peace."

These are fine words, and perhaps they are true. Maybe the Iraqis and other Arab people are just folks - regular people who want to live in harmony with their neighbors near and far. And maybe not.

Maybe Iraq and the broader Arab world have ancient values and beliefs that are hostile to America's. Maybe Arab men - who still practice honor killings against their wives and daughters, even in "moderate" countries like Jordan - do not want to release the creative gifts of women. Maybe the venerated spiritual leaders of the Arab world regard Western democracy as an offense against the laws of the Koran and "human liberty" as infidel code words for ungodly license.

Maybe the men made rich by their associations with Saddam and other dictators are not interested in creating a free-market economy. Maybe the secular political class of Baghdad - and Damascus and Cairo - regards domestic repression as preferable to American intervention for any reason whatever.

Maybe the mass of uneducated Arabs are profoundly loyal to tribal traditions and uninterested in attaining newfangled liberties. In short, perhaps the Arabs in Iraq and elsewhere have the governments they deserve. The next few months will clarify the issue.

Bringing liberty to the people of Iraq would be a fine thing. Still, it is not the main thing. The goal of this war is to establish and enforce the new Golden Rule of the post-post-Colonial world order inaugurated in September 2002: Sovereignty is not an inalienable right.

From now on, self-determination will belong to those people whose basic ethos and instincts do not pose a mortal threat to the United States, its interests and allies. The Iraqis and the other Arab nations may pass that test, or they may fail it. Once Saddam is gone, we will begin to find out.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

03/17/03: In war, like in baseball, the idea is to make the other guy cry --- now, let's go get 'em!
03/13/03: Jewish plot? This pol has gone punchy
03/11/03: Prez is ready to finish off the Security Council, too
03/04/03: Those human shields need some star power
02/28/03: How prez could further racial pluralism but end affirnative action
02/24/03: Prof's arrest will test Arab Americans' loyalty
02/11/03: Rhyme, but no reason
02/04/03: McGovern's children
01/23/03: A peace movement that's going nowhere
01/13/03: No time for experts
01/07/03: Senator from Mayberry shouldn't alarm prez
12/31/02: Dem Dummies
12/19/02: Saudis still play Santa to Arafat
12/13/02: Lott has to be dumped to save W's authority
12/05/02: Kissinger's Saudi pals litter 9/11 money trail
11/25/02: Sharon looks like a winner
11/18/02: It's the war, stupid
11/14/02: The Dems don't have a prayer
11/07/02: Watch for Dubya to give Arik political hug
10/31/02: Sharpton the patriot
10/22/02: Rabin, gone but not missed
10/17/02: Israelis bracing for US' punch at Iraq
10/14/02: Geriatric war resisters
09/27/02: Al Gore: The Lost Boy of American politics
09/05/02: The intifadeh's over, and the Israelis won
08/29/02: At the world summit, just anger & hypocrisy
08/21/02: No time for weak knees on Iraq
08/16/02: A pro-Arab pol may get the beating she deserves
08/13/02: Fight it out now
08/02/02: Memo to The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S. values won't sell in Arab world
07/31/02: Israel's nutty neighbors

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