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Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0

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    Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0 By Rami G. Khouri Saturday, February 25, 2006 The Daily Star, Lebanon
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2006
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      Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0
      By Rami G. Khouri
      Saturday, February 25, 2006
      The Daily Star, Lebanon

      Nothing better captures the broad lines of the great contestation that
      now defines the Middle East than the four very telegenic characters
      who have crisscrossed the region during the past week: U.S. Secretary
      of State Condoleezza Rice, her colleague in charge of U.S. public
      policy, Karen Hughes, Hamas official Khaled Meshaal and the young
      Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Their travels have been closely followed
      by the news media, which instinctively recognize a gladiatorial battle
      for the future when they see it, as is the case here.

      Two of these four Middle Eastern itinerant ideologues are slick,
      appointed American political figures who spend many of their waking
      hours preaching the benefits of democratic elections in the Arab
      world. Two others are bearded Arab Islamists who have come to power
      through the American-supported vehicle of democratic elections in the
      Arab world. It would seem to be a match made in heaven: bearded Arab
      politicos who wish to expand their own efficient constituencies and
      militias into governing systems that enhance the wellbeing of their
      fellow citizens; and the American ladies who combine the bouncy
      enthusiasm of young high school cheerleaders with the more daring
      inclination to engage in political genetic engineering in order to
      enhance the wellbeing of Arab citizens and the security of Americans,
      in one fell swoop.

      This convergence and happy ideological marriage has not happened.
      Instead, Rice and Hughes, when they are not preaching democracy for
      Arabs, spend the few remaining hours of their days fighting the
      incumbency of democratically elected Arabs. In response, elected
      bearded Arab politicos like Meshaal, the head of Hamas' Political
      Bureau, and Sadr, who leads a powerful Shiite movement and militia in
      Iraq, increase their legitimacy and their impact through two parallel
      routes. They engage in electoral politics by being more responsive and
      accountable to the needs of their constituents, and they generate
      wider emotional and political appeal by defying Washington and its
      policies and presence in the Middle East.

      The likelihood is that this past week will go down in the record books
      as one in which the American ladies significantly lost ground to the
      bearded Arabs. This is due to the simple reason that both the style
      and substance of American policies run sharply counter to the
      sentiments of ordinary Arabs, while the Meshaal-Sadr school of
      politics caters directly to ordinary people's powerful emotional and
      political needs.

      Rice's trip to four Arab capitals embodies the explicit American
      diplomatic drive to convince Arab governments to quarantine Hamas and
      starve the Palestinians of aid funds, until Hamas changes its views
      and actions vis-a-vis Israel. This policy will be rejected by all Arab
      governments, and is also likely to set back Washington's standing in
      the region more than any other action in recent years, even the
      unpopular Iraq war. That is because opposition to Hamas touches on and
      sharply inflames several deep nerves that already form the foundation
      of widespread skepticism about American foreign policy in the Arab
      world and internationally.

      The first is the sense that the United States is neither serious nor
      consistent about promoting democracy. The second is that it fights
      mightily against Arabs or others in the region who try to manifest
      their identity through expressions of Islamism. The third is that
      Washington wages vigorous battles against any Arabs, Muslims, or
      others in the world who dare to resist Israel's occupation and
      subjugation of Arabs, in Palestine and elsewhere. The fourth is that
      Washington treats sovereign Arab governments with contempt, expecting
      them to ignore their own public opinion and bend to America's desires
      at the snap of a finger.

      Not surprisingly, the trend of public opinion and political sentiments
      on the ground throughout the Middle East has been in favor of
      mainstream Islamists who simultaneously accept democratic pluralism,
      defy the U.S., resist Israeli occupation and colonization, and demand
      less corruption and more efficient governance at home. So Hamas,
      Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and movements like Sadr's are
      winning elections, even when America-friendly governments such as
      Egypt's restrict their freedom of movement.

      Meshaal's and Sadr's travels around the Middle East this week were
      more like a victory lap than anything else. We must challenge some of
      their past behavior and future plans, to be sure. But we must also
      admit that these Islamist leaders have more legitimacy in the Middle
      East than all of Rice's and Hughes' copious democratic rhetoric, and
      all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.

      What to do instead? Elected democratic incumbents in Washington,
      Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere should engage
      honestly, to move toward a common middle ground where Arab, Iranian,
      Turkish, European and American policies could happily coexist. This
      desirable terrain would include indigenous religious and social
      values, universal good governance standards, global principles that
      assert national sovereignty and reject colonial occupation, and
      legitimate leaders who have both the political credibility and the
      managerial capacity to synchronize all these factors into sensible,
      sustainable policies. High-profile American officials should explore
      this more humane, mutually beneficial approach during their visits to
      our convoluted lands, rather than mainly lecture and offend us.

      This week's score: bearded Arabs 1, American ladies 0.

      Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily Star.



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