The Earth is Moving Under Our Feet

President Bush’s call for democracy in the Middle East is having its effect. The elections in Afghanistan, followed by the elections in Iraq, were followed this year by Palestinian elections for the head of the Palestinian Authority.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 12, 2005.)

The Ayatollah Khomenei, and some of the Middle Eastern kings and presidents, might well be humming Carole King’s well-known line, “I feel the earth move under my feet.” Plate tectonic changes are taking place in this part of the world ever since September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, could not possibly have imagined the eventual results of the Al-Qaeda attack on the U.S., and we have not yet seen the last of the after-shocks. Under the leadership of U.S. President George W. Bush, the Middle East, and with it the world, is changing. To those who had come to know it in the 20th century, it will be unrecognizable as the 21st century advances.

Less than two months after Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Kandahar fell to allied forces and Taliban rule in Afghanistan ended. Contrary to the predictions of many – that a U.S. military operation in Afghanistan would meet the same sorry end as previous British and Soviet attempts to subjugate that country – Afghanistan was quickly liberated of its Taliban rulers and Al-Qaeda lost its main operational, supply and training base. But there was more to follow. On October 26, 2004, elections were held in Afghanistan, and Hamid Karzai was installed as the first democratically elected president of that country.

Next came Iraq. The world saw Sadaam Hussein’s statue toppled in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. On May 2, President Bush declared victory after a lightning military operation that lasted less than two months. Large-scale insurgent activity and the absence of weapons of mass destruction, whose presence had been considered the primary reason for the operation against Saddam Hussein, brought a wave of criticism from far and wide against Bush’s policy in Iraq. These voices began fading after the first democratic election held in Iraq this January, and will probably disappear completely with the election by the Iraqi Assembly of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as the Iraqi prime minister. Insurgent activity is not over by any means, but it is going to be a different Iraq from now on.

Muammar Khadafi must have been watching events in Iraq closely, because in December 2003 he decided to reveal the Libyan nuclear arms program and to dismantle it. The world could breathe a sigh of relief.

President Bush’s call for democracy in the Middle East is having its effect. The elections in Afghanistan, followed by the elections in Iraq, were followed this year by Palestinian elections for the head of the Palestinian Authority. Even Hosni Mubarak has recently proposed a change in the Egyptian election law that would permit more than a single candidate to run in the presidential election. A far cry from proper democratic elections, but a beginning. By the end of this month,  the Syrian army under U.S. pressure is scheduled to leave Lebanon, setting the stage for democratic elections there.

Some might argue that all these changes were going to happen anyway, even without an assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; that a Middle East ruled by tyrants could not endure. That may very well be true, but there is no doubt that the president of the U.S. kick-started this process. One can only imagine the damage and destruction that was awaiting the world had he not accelerated the process.

And maybe most important of all: For many years the world watched Iran actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program without lifting a finger. Now pressure is being applied by the U.S. and Europe to put an end to this program. It looks like the Iranians, despite their bluster, are not going to get away with it.

All in all, a very impressive scorecard.

It is not too early for the many opponents of Bush’s policy to recant, in light of the results that it has achieved. It is by now obvious that past policies based on support of Middle Eastern dictators were damaging to the interests of the Free World as well as to the citizens of the countries where tyranny reigned. Israelis, embedded in the Middle East, should certainly have known better. Embracing Yasser Arafat, who by now is recognized by all as having been the biggest obstacle to progress to peace in the area, and calling for concessions to neighboring dictators was morally wrong and politically unwise.

It took a new immigrant to Israel, Natan Sharansky, to remind Israelis that democracy and peace are inseparable. You don’t have to spend nine years in a Soviet jail to understand that.

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