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Stephens: U.S. should cultivate good guys in Arab world
June 23rd, 2006
Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, visited Egypt in May to do some reporting, particularly of a World Economic Forum meeting.
He went with Irshad Manji, the controversial Muslim lesbian author of The Trouble with Islam and who, like Stephens, is a WEF Young Global Leader.
Since Stephens is Jewish and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief, and Manji has had some hostile fatwas directed at her because of her book, both initially tried to downplay their identities in Egypt.
However, one of the first things that a journalist does in any foreign country is to acquire a fixer, a combination interpreter and guide, Stephens said.
And the Egyptian fixer they found through a journalist friend of Stephens looked at Manji and said, I know you. I read your book. I loved it. Then the fixer looked at Stephens and said, I know you. I read your columns in the Jerusalem Post. I loved them.
A small incident perhaps; but it could be symptomatic, Stephens told an audience of about 280 gathered on June 14 at Milwaukees Pfister Hotel for the Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds local celebration of the organizations 55th anniversary.
The Arab/Muslim world is beginning to change in ways we dont often hear about, Stephens said. Evidence can be found for this in newspapers published by exiles from Arab countries and in private conversations, he said.
Evidence can even sometimes be found in more public statements, he said. For example, in 2005 he attended a World Economic Forum conference in Jordan.
There, of the 1,200 attendees, some 700 top Arab political, business and cultural figures attended a town hall meeting where they were asked to draw up a list of the three top reform priorities for the region and to state what they regarded at the model country in each area.
This group chose education, political participation, and transparency and accountability as priorities and they chose Israel as a model country in transparency and accountability, and (with Lebanon) in political participation. That was, Stephens said, an astonishing result.
Moreover, a survey of the Arab world by the Al Arabiya news channel in May 2005 asked participants what they thought was the predominant cause of their social-economic-political problems: Israels occupation of Palestine, or domestic Arab misrule; and 87 percent said the second, Stephens said.
It is important that U.S. policy-makers take note of this and bend their efforts to supporting the good guys, Stephens said. Pluralistic, democratic, moderate forces exist in the Arab world and need to be cultivated.
Deliberate and muscular
In a conversation with a Chronicle reporter after the event, Stephens acknowledged that open-minded Arab people like the fixer he met in Egypt are not the people who have the political power in the Arab world.
Nevertheless, there are significant people who need to be cultivated, he said. I think theres a lot of work we can do that is not now being done to locate, assist, develop and defend champions of liberalism, pluralism and democracy.
Stephens also acknowledged that it is a genuine concern that if the U.S. does sponsor such people, they might be seen as tools of foreigners. The U.S. has to be sensitive in the way it goes about it, he said. At the same time, we cant endlessly apologize for our purposes or shrink from ourselves.
The U.S. is fighting an uphill battle to defend and promote liberal values in an area that both needs these values and resists them, he said. Doing this requires imaginative but also unapologetic public diplomacy.
He said he would like to see Israel withdraw from some of the territories of the West Bank, and is a supporter in principle of convergence, though he would not want Israel to make a full withdrawal from those territories.
He said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a harder task than his predecessor Ariel Sharon would have had in carrying out such a withdrawal, because Olmert has less personal credibility with the Israeli public.
However, the infighting were now seeing among the Palestinians is, I think, precisely what Sharon intended and has had several good effects, Stephens said.
It has deflected Palestinian violence from Israel to domestic Palestinian politics, he said. And it has forced Palestinians to begin to ask themselves serious questions about what is the nature of the state that they want someday to inhabit.
Stephens also acknowledged the possibility that the Palestinians could view an Israeli withdrawal as a retreat, as Hezbollah did Israels pulling out of Lebanon in May 2000.
A lot depends on how Israel carries out any further withdrawal, he said. The withdrawal from Lebanon was catastrophically done. It projected an image of surrender rather than being a deliberate and muscular decision.