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Positive Thinking in the Middle East By: Barry Rubin
Global Research in Intl Affairs | Tuesday, July 13, 2004


It is easy, of course, to focus on the distorting static and miss the message. The substance of the situation is surprisingly good--assuming one knows the Middle East well enough to have properly low expectations--despite all the background noise of the media, official statements, court decisions, and polls.

Here is a list of more than a dozen things to make one feel better about reality despite the region's mess and the horrendous howlings of much public discourse on these issues.

     -- Saddam Hussein is no longer ruling and Iraqis at least have a chance for a better life. True, the future of Iraq is unclear and violence remains high within the country but the greatest single threat to the region's peace and stability has been removed. Iraqis are at the start of a process that will allow them, for better or worse, to determine their own fate.

     -- Democracy and reform are on the Arab world's agenda. It will be a long, uphill fight to bring change to those countries but at least a process has begun. Liberals remain few and weak; the dictatorships are strong and the Islamist threat will discourage openness or innovation. Still, at least there are more people trying to move things in the right direction.

     -- There are some signs of progress toward reform in places ranging from more democracy in Bahrain to a new, more equitable, family law in Morocco. Such steps are encouraging though they are also usually exaggerated in the West.

     -- The international war on terrorism has made significant progress in weakening terrorist groups and making it harder to launch attacks outside the Middle East. Obviously, this war has not yet been won, and in some ways is unwinnable. But in fighting terrorist threats the measure is not the disappearance of the other side but its reduced ability to cause casualties and tragic disruptions of normal life.

      -- The pressure put onto terrorist groups by international efforts--plus their own misplaced self-confidence--has led them into a serious strategic error. The jihadist strategy of focusing on Western targets and trying to kill Christians or Jews arose from the failure of radical Islamists to make revolutions in Arab states. Misreading the popular support for the murder of non-Muslims as political backing, the jihadists have now gone back to their war on Arab regimes. This approach is doomed to failure. By challenging Arab governments, they give these rulers a huge incentive to repress them; by launching bloody attacks within Arab countries, they will turn the vast majority of local Arab Muslims against them, as happened in the 1990s.

     -- A quarter-century after the Islamist revolution in Iran no similar event has taken place in any Arab state and there is no likelihood of this happening in the coming years.

     -- The great majority of Iranians have turned against the radical Islamist rulers there. Although the reformers have been defeated in the short run, the long-term trend will be for their power to grow and eventually change the regime from within.

     -- Regardless of their rhetoric, Arab states continue their policy of withdrawing from the Arab-Israeli conflict and knowing that the price of war or confrontation is too high to contemplate.

     -- Iran and Arab states still do not have nuclear weapons though Tehran is still driving to get them.

     -- Israel is clearly winning the Palestinian war of terrorism against it. The Palestinian leadership wants to continue the fighting and has wide, if somewhat shrinking, public support for doing so. Still, the ability to strike against Israel along with the economic and psychological impact on that country has sharply declined. Polls show that many Palestinians believe they are winning but other than interpreting a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a triumph, there is no basis for this assertion.

     -- Despite sporadic attacks, Israel's northern border remains secure. Hizballah has not been able to revive the war there to any considerable extent.

     -- In the United States, the Democrats have nominated a moderate, responsible candidate. Whoever wins the next election--despite the real differences between George W. Bush and John Kerry--U.S. Middle East policy will remain reasonably good.

     -- Britain has held to a friendly policy toward Israel despite pressure from the European Union and pressure from that country's increasingly loony left.

     -- After four years of war, while Europe has often criticized Israel unfairly it has done nothing serious to subvert Israel's security or to interfere materially with its self-defense. 

      -- More people than ever before, though still far too few, understand how the region really works. They comprehend that the Middle East's central problem is the hegemony of dictatorships which combine greedy, incompetent, and poor performance with xenophobia, demagoguery, repression, and propaganda to stay on power. 


Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.


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