Listen to the Arabs

The New York Times |

By Parag Khanna

A gathering of the Arab League tends to bring out the worst of Middle Eastern stereotypes: dysfunctional protocol, empty exhortations denouncing Western evils and pointless acrimony.

Yet this week’s summit in Tripoli could mark a turning point. The Arab League is increasingly serious and confident, floating the kind of proposals America should back rather than block.

Persistent Western misperceptions about the Arabs support the false frames we use in analyzing the region. We Americans remain overly influenced by post-9/11 trauma and the widely circulated Arab Human Development Report prepared by the U.N. Development Program, which reinforced images of Arab depravity and underdevelopment.

But the Arab world is also wealthy and resourceful, blessed with oil and strategically located at the intersection of Europe, Africa and Asia. It will not be “left behind” by globalization.

To the contrary, the most significant and neglected trend of the past decade has been a positive globalization within the Arab world due to cross-border investment and satellite media such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Unlike the region’s previous oil booms, the years since 9/11 have seen Arabs keeping their money to themselves more than ever, fueling job creation from Morocco to Syria and economic phenomena such as Dubai.

Never before have so many young Arabs participated in student exchanges, activist conferences and Internet blogs among themselves. The Arab world can afford to modernize itself and has shown promising signs of doing so.

We also fail to understand the Arab strategic reality. If Arabs are supposed to be lining up with the United States and Israel to contain the hegemonic ambitions of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then why did Syria host a “war council” of Iran and Hezbollah in Damascus last month? And why is Qatar exploring gas fields jointly with Iran?

The fact is that most Arabs prefer a modus vivendi with Iran — just as many tacitly collaborate with Israel on matters of mutual interest.

Rather than seeing themselves as trapped between Israel and Iran, the most common Arab objective seems to be to limit excessive American influence in their region.

Americans widely believe that the Arab world was elated by the election of President Obama over a year ago. That is so, but not because the Arabs want strong American leadership in their region; they’d prefer to run their own affairs with minimal American interference. From engaging Hamas to negotiating with Iran, Arab states are taking matters into their own hands. And that’s good. In the run-up to the Arab League summit this weekend, the organization signaled to the Palestinian leadership that it backs direct talks with Israel on final status issues, and is moving toward creating an Arab peacekeeping force to stabilize Gaza and re-integrate Hamas into the Palestinian government.

Dealing with the Palestinians’ internal divisions in this way achieves America’s objective of subduing Hamas in a far better way than any American efforts to date.

The notion that the Obama administration needs to “re-engage and lead” the peace process is dismissed even by long-time friends of America like the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who recently said, “We don’t want any new American plan from Obama. Just help us implement the existing ones.”

The same applies to dealing with Iran. At every annual Manama Dialogue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, smaller Gulf nations speak out for the creation of a Gulf Security Conference in which both Iran and Israel would be included — a step that could greatly enhance regional confidence by bringing more transparency to these countries’ activities. Yet in the name of preserving a “united front” against Iran, the United States always blocks the idea.

An Arab Parliament and an Arab Security Council are also on the Tripoli agenda, as are ideas for funding more secular schools. If America wants to see fewer theocrats and more technocrats in the Arab world, it should welcome leadership from Libya and Lebanon, Morocco and Qatar.

Only if America comes to terms with an Arab world that can manage on its own will the region ever reach a natural equilibrium, one that the United States doesn’t have to artificially sustain with blood and treasure.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition at the 21st Century.”

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