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By Stan Crock No Bush Administration regional vision is grander than its blueprint for the Arab world. Reforming the Palestinian Authority and changing the regime in Iraq is just the beginning. The Bush team wants nothing less than a renaissance for a culture that once eclipsed the West during the Medieval Age but now is considered backward and a breeding ground for frustration, anger -- and terrorism.
Washington's mission is the familiar mantra: democracy, free markets, and human rights -- especially women's rights. Is there is any reason to believe these Western notions could take hold now when the region has been impervious to them for 250 years? Many Administration critics dismiss the idea as ludicrous. A new Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study calls the vision a mirage.
I disagree. To be sure, the idea of transforming the Arab world into a hotbed of political and economic modernism is a highly ambitious goal, and it will take many years, possibly decades. Still, some experts think the opportunity for incremental but significant change is far better now than at any time in recent history.
POOR EXCUSES. Three converging factors could force modernization over the long term. The first is increasing outside pressure, primarily from the U.S.. The second is demographic pressure: The Arab citizenry is the youngest of any region, with 38% of its population 14 or under. With unemployment already at 15%, the highest rate in the developing world, the economic systems in most Arab nations aren't capable of handling the growth in the workforce.
A recent survey under the auspices of the U.N. Development Program showed that 51% of older adolescents and 45% of younger ones want to emigrate from nations with majority Arab populations, largely because of the bleak employment outlook. Ruling elites are frightened by this ticking time bomb, and they have two choices: "It could be an implosion," says Zahir Jamal, a top official of the U.N.'s regional bureau for Arab States. "Or it could be a massive incentive to renew the social contract."
The final factor is what amounts to peer pressure. Arab leaders like to blame victimization by the West for their woes. But that's becoming increasingly difficult as other similarly colonized countries march forward. In 1960, per capita output was higher in the Arab world than among the Asian Tigers -- now it's half that of South Korea. Arab productivity is in the midst of a secular decline, while it's rising everywhere else. Even sub-Saharan Africa now boasts higher rates of Internet use than the Arab world. "They can't dismiss an India. They can't dismiss a China. They can't dismiss a Tanzania," says the U.N.'s Jamal.
WHAT'S NEW? Arab leaders are looking inward and seeing the imperative for change. One portent is the Arab League's call for normal relations with Israel, suggesting leaders are moving away from blaming a 54-year-old state for two centuries of problems. Another is a controversial U.N. Development Program report issued this summer by a group of highly regarded Arab economists. The document contains an unusually critical analysis of the Arab world, on par with what Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis stated in What Went Wrong. When Lewis' book came out earlier in 2002, it was roundly criticized by Arabists as an unsympathetic screed by a Westerner.
The U.N. report's recommendations -- as well as its analysis -- could have been written by the Bush White House. They call for representative government, free markets, better education, and removal of barriers against women. Hard to imagine Arab economists writing such a report, say, a decade ago. And now leaders in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain all are meeting with the report's authors to discuss ways to implement its reform suggestions.
Sure, some countries seem to be backsliding. Witness Egypt's jailing of a leading dissident. But with little fanfare, changes are under way for the better.
POLITICAL EVOLUTION. Morocco, an ancient monarchy, held a legislative election in September. Bahrain has been transformed from an emirate to a constitutional monarchy, with elections slated for October. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has reversed decades of suppression of political dissidents, freed political prisoners, allowed all exiles to return home, repealed emergency security laws, and permitted the formation of political societies. Oman has the only bicameral legislature in the Gulf Cooperation Council and women are active participants. Though it's only advisory, the legislature is an important step toward representative government.
Opposition parties in some of these nations gripe that the votes are just for advisory councils with no real power. That's a legitimate complaint, and it puts the U.S. in a bind. Should America back the slow transition managed by the current powers-that-be, or support opponents who want Jeffersonian democracy now? I think both: The U.S. should support speedier action as a way to keep pressure on, while at the same time understanding that a slow transition in some instances makes sense. After all, a vote for an advisory council is still better than no vote at all and is itself a sign of progress. And the fact that the opposition is not in jail is a healthy signal, too.
How you judge progress depends on the baseline you're using. Here, the benchmark shouldn't be 21st century America or the European Union. Rather, improvement should be tracked against what these countries were doing a decade ago.
40-YEAR REVOLUTION. Progress no doubt, will be slow. And it's possible that parties and politicians not to America's liking will come to power with free elections. That will probably happen in the West Bank, and in all likelihood, the Bush Administration will be long gone before the U.S. gets a party in power to its liking in Iran -- one of the nations identified by Bush as part of the "axis of evil."
It isn't out of the question, however, that men and women on the streets of the Muslim world will repudiate Islamic parties, as was the case in Iran and Afghanistan. In Iran, the transformation could take 40 years from the revolution that put the Ayatollahs in charge. This is a slow, tectonic shift. It will require patience. But if the U.S. plays its cards right, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online