May 22, 2009

Davos in the Desert

Dispatches from conferences in the Middle East don't tend to make interesting reading, but Jay Nordlinger managed to write five this week. He attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East next to Jordan’s Dead Sea, and what he saw and heard is far more interesting than I would have expected.

Here is a taste.

It can be a wondrous thing to hear Arab elites talk behind closed doors. They can be bracingly, sometimes thrillingly, candid. They recognize the problems of Arab society; they are eager to confront and surmount them.

At a lunch, I hear things like, “We Arabs are at the bottom of everything — at the bottom of every index: literacy, capitalism, the rights of women. Everything. In our countries, we have cults of personality, dictatorships, dynasties . . . Where is democracy? Where is rotation in office?

“In the past, extremist Islam was unusual; now it is usual. In the Soviet Union, South Africa, South Korea, there was restructuring. But not in our region. We have no Gorbachev, we have no de Klerk, we have no Kim Dae-jung. The vast majority of our people are chromosomally reasonable and moderate. And the human spirit must be unleashed here.”

How touching it is, too, to hear a Syrian woman plead for human rights. Many of her countrymen — many of her best ones — are in cells.

I wish the whole world could hear what I have heard at this lunch.

But you also hear the old voices — the Old Guard, as I call them. And, as always, they are depressing. They cannot speak without fingering Israel and the United States. In their eyes, everything bad stems from Israel and the United States. And no progress can be made until Israel ceases to occupy the West Bank. (They’re now out of Gaza, of course. Fat lot of good that did.)

Arab countries can’t drop crippling socialism until Israel leaves the West Bank. Nepotism must continue until Israel leaves the West Bank. Women cannot drive until Israel leaves — and “honor killings” must go on. Corruption must prevail in Arab countries as long as Israel occupies the West Bank.

Etc., etc. This attitude is not only insane — it is harmful to the point of destructiveness.

As a rule, I encounter two types of Arab elite: those who recognize Arab problems, and are willing to tackle them; and those who fixate on Israel and America. Members of the former group are so refreshing, you want to hug them; members of the latter group are not just lamentable, but despicable. They are the excuse-makers. And they hold the entire region back.


There are major Arab excuse-makers here by the Dead Sea — and the leading one, I would say, is Amr Moussa, the longtime secretary-general of the Arab League. He is the epitome, the purest representative, of the Old Guard. But you know who most of the excuse-makers are? Americans and Europeans. Middle Easterners themselves are far more likely to be candid and clear-eyed.


In these journals past — from the Middle East and from Davos — I have remarked on the anti-Americanism of the Americans. It is always strutting about. An Arab says that his country must liberate itself from illiteracy and ignorance, in order to make progress politically. An American woman says, chortling to her companion, “We need to do that in America.”

Keep laughin’, lady.

Read all five parts here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 22, 2009 11:49 AM

I enjoyed them, and the posts provided a different perspective than one usually gets. Kind of reminded me of P.J. O'Rourke.

Bit embarrassed that I was not aware of Mr. Nordlinger.

Thanks MJT,

With wishes for a meaningful and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend.


Posted by: Ron Snyder Author Profile Page at May 23, 2009 7:37 AM

Interesting perspective.

I have to wonder, though, MJT - like nearly everyone these days, Nordlinger muses whether Israel can survive. This depresses the shit out of me, since it signals the extent to which Arab propaganda is winning/has won the PR war -- but it puzzles me, too.

Where do people like Nordlinger think Israel is going? It isn't about to dismantle itself and disappear, although if the pressure from outside stops, some people there worry it will tear itself apart from within.

The Israelis I know will fight to the death and take no prisoners next time it is attacked by any Arab nation-state.

Is the assumption the UN will simply 'un-mandate' Israel? >>poof! begone!<< That it would lose a war and become occupied territory until the Arabs can ethnically cleanse it? That's a bloodbath and a half, and would make Tibet, Darfur, etc pale by comparison. That Tehran will nuke it into oblivion? That Tehran's nukes will prevent any Western nation from stepping in to support Israel in a multi-front war? What? Why doesn't anyone ever ask 'I wonder if the palestinians will survive?'

If Israel doesn't 'make it' it's not going to go down alone.

Posted by: AZZenny Author Profile Page at May 23, 2009 10:53 AM

These dispatches were great.

I agree with Azzenny. Whenever a journalist writes about their wonder on whether Israel is going to survive is depressing.

Posted by: Michael W. Author Profile Page at May 23, 2009 2:39 PM

It would be more depressing if a journalist did NOT wonder if Israel is going to survive, since it would mean that the journalist is either ignorant or a liar.

None of Israels neighbors want the State of Israel to exist, and they have tried a few times by force of arms to destroy Israel.

Posted by: Ron Snyder Author Profile Page at May 23, 2009 6:30 PM
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