Building stability through instability

Posted: Feb 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Things just seem to look different through the eyes of The New York Times. The newspaper is now running a television ad featuring a family sitting around having breakfast and reading the Times. You?d expect the ?typical? American family -- wife, husband, two-point-whatever children.

Instead, the father seems to be about 50, the mother about 30 and the daughter about 15. Typical in Manhattan, perhaps, but not Manhattan, Kan.

The Middle East looks different, too.

After Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon?s former prime minister, was assassinated, Times? State Department correspondent Steve Weisman told CNN, ?It means more turmoil than ever in the region. And the fact that our presence there in Iraq is now a factor in the turmoil, I don?t know that it?s a factor in the assassination. But there?s a cleavage in the Middle East now between Sunni and Shiite.?

Now there?s a cleavage between Sunni and Shiite? Stop the presses.

Actually, there?s been a cleavage between those groups since the 7th century -- that?s even before George W. Bush became president. It?s part of the great divide within Islam, the divide that only Muslims can mend. Democracy can help them.

In a way, Hariri?s murder was business as usual. Syria has controlled Lebanon for decades, and in recent months Hariri had made clear that he wanted to change that. ?I want Lebanon to be democratic, not only by respecting free speech, human rights and elections, but also respecting international law and acting as part of the international community,? he said in October as he announced his resignation as prime minister. Syria?s not ready to let Lebanon go; it probably won?t ever be. So it killed the man most likely to challenge the status quo.

That?s where the U.S. comes in. As Weisman put it, the Shiite-Sunni split is, ?a big worry -- a factor -- a potential instability throughout the entire region.? Well, yes. But sometimes instability is good. These days -- because of us -- instability is spreading throughout the Middle East.

After all, nothing?s more unstable than democracy. We don?t know who?ll be president of the United States in 2010. That instability is a source of strength, as it forces various groups to work together to get things done.

But in Syria, stability still rules. Bashar Assad will be president in 2010, as long as he isn?t overthrown in a coup or killed. Unless, that is, the instability of democracy spreads to Syria as it is spreading in Iraq. Because of the United States, people there voted last month.

Also, because we?re promoting democracy in the region, Palestinians recently went to the polls, Iranians are getting restless with their ruling religious leaders and Israel?s cabinet has agreed to hand over sections of the Gaza Strip.

Of course, The New York Times isn?t alone in its concerns about ?stability.? German President Horst Koehler recently declared that the United States is offering too much freedom to the Middle East.

?Youths in the slums of Karachi, Cairo, Lagos or Jakarta are constantly confronted with what initially seems a fascinating lifestyle, the epitome of freedom,? Koehler told The Washington Post?s Fred Hiatt. ?But in many respects this lifestyle is quite incompatible with their own cultural norms and values. The result is a potent mix of fascination, frustration and rejection, which in many cases may generate hatred and violence.?

Let?s road test that idea. No country in the world is as stable as Saudi Arabia. Yet 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, not from supposedly unstable Pakistan or Indonesia (where, by the way, at least some form of democracy exists). Clearly, stability in the region isn?t making us safer.

But democracy can. Democracy will eventually serve as an outlet for any ?frustration? or ?rejection? that Muslims feel. If Pres. Koehler doubts that, he should just ask Sen. John Kerry.

President Bush recently outlined his vision during a Q & A session with young Germans. ?Our foreign policy is based upon this notion that the world is a better place when people are able to realize that which is embedded in their soul,? he told them. ?Free societies are peaceful societies. Democratic societies don?t attack each other.?

Bashar Assad knows that, just as he knows he?s got nothing to fear from a democratic Lebanon -- and everything to fear from the instability it?ll bring to his Syrian fiefdom.