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On Point

The Angry Arab Meets the Texas Cowboy


by Austin Bay
March 2, 2005

Consider yourself blessed to witness this remarkable moment in world history. Afghanistan's October 2004 elections made the case for people power. In January, first Palestine, then the biggest election, Iraq, set the conditions for positive, pluralistic change in the Arab Middle East. Now, occupied Lebanon seizes the moment -- with public demonstrations similar to Ukraine's -- and the democratic surge continues.

I don't believe in happy endings, merely a respite before the next struggle, However, this Millennium War has reached and passed a crucial midpoint.

All but the most recalcitrant, calcified and now laughable naysayers in the West suddenly recognize the pragmatism of American idealism. Since 9-11, extending political and economic opportunity into the world's hard corners -- by curbing the power of corrupt autocracies, by toppling the tyrannical thugs who rule by terror -- have been the heart and soul of American strategy.

Syrian bayonets no longer paralyze the Lebanese. This doesn't mean Lebanese democrats won't face terror strikes or even an attack by Syrian forces, but it does tell us that in the streets of Beirut, the power of hope is defeating the power of fear. It also says that gutsy Lebanese are betting that U.S. military forces in Iraq (on Syria's eastern border) won't let the Syrians massacre them. The exemplary courage of the Iraqi people and American military might have taken the tool of fear from the dictators' hands.

Is Syria next? Syria is a complex, fractured society -- so let me put a personal face on Syria.

In the early 1980s, I attended school in Germany with a brilliant Syrian man. The first two months we were together, he came on hard with the Arab anger and Mulism militant act. He hated Americans, and he hated "Jews." He bullied the other Americans at the school with this moral castigation hustle, but I flat told him to stuff it. If he hated Americans, well, I'm a Texan. That perfect wisecrack puzzled him for 24 hours, and once he figured out I was playing a Texas cowboy foil to his angry Arab, it amused him. He also liked jazz, and would hang around when I played blues and bop on the piano.

I got the tough facts by osmosis: The Assad regime had jailed members of his family, but in Syria everyone lived in fear.

An early August afternoon: My Syrian pal and I were sitting in a German cafe (quaint side street, great light), and he finally broke. "How do you do it?" he asked me, meaning: "How does America do it? How does America succeed in so many ways?" I told him his real question was why Syria and a majority of Third World countries were in such terrible and terrifying conditions -- that's the deep subject. "First, you have to off your autocrats," I told him. "But we can't do this," he said -- and his face was a work of pain. "Then, until you do, you will continue to eat dust," I replied. "To eat dirt."

I remember the deep yet bright anguish in his brown eyes. We loved to kid each other -- we both loved to pun in our not-so-fluent German -- but he knew I wasn't kidding. He knew I'd put the truth out there unvarnished, and I did so because I respected him. I don't remember how the rest of the day played out, but I remember he was quiet, and he wasn't a quiet kind of guy.

There is a universal hunger for liberty. It exists in Syria, and my brilliant, frightened friend attests to that. At the time, I thought his occasional bouts of "Sunni militancy" were a response to the Allawite dictatorship in Syria. In retrospect, I realize he was wrestling with the challenges of personal and cultural identity in a world where there is no "over there."

Blame technology. Technology has compressed the planet. With the Internet, all gossip is local. Jumbo jets mean everyone lives within a two-day trip of everyone else, and the angry Arab and the Texas cowboy will eventually meet.

I look forward to seeing my friend again, over a cup of tea in free Damascus.

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