by Austin Bay
December 29, 2005
In December 2004, I wrote a column that led with this line:
"Mark it on your calendar: Next month, the Arab Middle East will revolt."
The column placed the January 2005 Palestinian and Iraqi
elections in historical context. These were not the revolutions of generals
with tanks and terrorists with fatwas, but the slow revolutions of the
ballot box, with political moderates and liberal reformers the genuinely
revolutionary vanguard. To massage Churchill's phrase, these revolts were
the beginning of democratic politics, where "jaw jaw" begins to replace "war
war" and "terror terror."
These slow revolts against tyranny and terror continue, and are
the "big story" of 2005 and the truly "big history" of our time.
Partisan, ignorant, fear-filled rhetoric tends to obscure this
big history, in part because the big story moves slowly. The democratic
revolt is grand drama, but it doesn't cram into a daily news cycle, much
less into "news updates" every 30 minutes.
Television, the medium where image is a tyrant, finds
incremental economic and political development a particularly frustrating
story to tell. A brick is visually boring -- a bomb is not. The significance
of a brick takes time to explain, time to establish context, while a
spectacular explosion incites immediate visceral and emotional responses. In
the long term, hope may propel millions -- hope that democracy will replace
tyranny and terror. But in the short haul, violence and vile rhetoric, like
sex and celebrity, guarantee an immediate audience.
So the "big stories" get lost in the momentum of the "now."
In April 2004, I interviewed former U.S. Sen. (and 9/11
commission member) Bob Kerrey. The subject was Iraq and the War on Terror in
"historical terms." Kerrey had argued in a speech he gave in late 2003 that
"20 years from now, we'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says it wasn't
worth the effort. This is not just another democracy. This (Iraq) is a
democracy in the Arab world."
"If you look beyond the short-term violence and instability (in
Iraq)," Kerrey told me, "you do see significant activities on the part of
the Iraqi people that indicate they understand the commitment necessary to
govern themselves. ... There are going to be in the short term terrifying,
confusing moments, (like) attacks on Iraqi police headquarters. The intent
(by the opposition) is to produce destabilization, to cause people to say,
'Let's get out of here; they don't like us.' ... If we stay, then I am very
confident that Iraq will build a stable democracy ..."
That's a clear statement of U.S. strategy in Iraq. Here's my
formulation, from February 2003: "Removing Saddam begins the reconfiguration
of the Middle East, a dangerous, expensive process, but one that will lay
the foundation for true states where the consent of the governed creates
legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted."
Implementing the policies and sustaining the will to achieve
these goals is of course immensely difficult. It's a painfully slow
process -- too slow, it appears, for television.
The Iraqi people, however, see it. In October, after the Iraqi
constitutional vote, an Iraqi friend of mine dropped me an e-mail: "Major
players (in Iraq) are coming more and more to realize that dialogue,
alliances, common interests and just plain politics is the way to win -- not
violence, intimidation and terror. So this (lesson) is apparently slowly
'sinking in' in our confused and frightened Iraqi mentality."
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that the
constitution is "a sign of civilization. ... This constitution has come
after heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth."
Jaafari echoed a sentiment I heard last year while serving on
active duty in Iraq. Several Iraqis told me they knew democracy was "our big
chance." One man said it was Iraq's chance to "escape bad history." To
paraphrase a couple of other Iraqis, toppling Saddam and building a more
open society was a chance "to enter the modern world."
The great democratic revolts are profoundly promising history.
They are the big story of 2005 -- and, for that matter, the next three or