Missing words


November 21, 1990|By A.M. Rosenthal

NEW YORK — FIVE WORDS are missing. Cup your ear, but in all the talk about American and United Nations goals in the Iraqi crisis you will not hear certain words uttered about the future of the Arab Middle East: political freedom, democracy, human rights.

But if you listen hard enough, you will hear the snickers of the "pragmatists" -- the Arabists and other diplomats in the Western capitals. They will tell you that such things are not part of Arab history, which is true, and that they never can be, which is false.

It is also stupid, shortsighted and ignorant. Ever since World War II, freedom and democracy have shown themselves more potent than despotism, and human rights has proven one of the most powerful political weapons the world has known.

How ironic, how sad -- at the very time when the West fears to utter the hope of freedom and human rights for the Middle East, a convocation that is testimony to their power takes place in Paris. The collapse of communism brought the end of the Cold War confrontation. And the collapse of communism was brought decades nearer by democratic activists who risked their lives pushing through the tiny loophole of the Helsinki treaty on human rights. The Kremlin opened the loophole contemptuously in exchange for recognition of communist-imposed borders -- surely one of the greatest mistakes any despotism ever made.

A strange admiration for Third-World tough guys is one reason the West is not inclined to bother about democracy in the Middle East. ("He keeps his boots polished; my brother and I like him," Robert Kennedy once said of a South Korean military dictator.)

Fear of the unknown is another. If freedom of political choice ever does come to the Middle East, the whole structure of monarchies, despotism and the rule of the mosque will crack open. But so will the cozy arrangements between local rulers and Western oil companies and the profitable military deals between the West and the kings and sheiks.

And of course, the United States knows that most of its Arab allies are state-of-the-art tyrannies. In Saudi Arabia women are chattel, religious or political dissent is punishable by imprisonment or death. It takes a real expert to tell our ally Hafez al-Assad of Syria apart from our enemy Saddam Hussein.

So the United States maintains an unworthy silence -- saying not a word when Syria slaughters Lebanese or when the Saudis round up women for the crime of driving. Washington even tells American soldiers not to talk about women's rights or show the cross or the star of David. The Democratic House majority leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt, actually says that the Saudis made a great "concession" by allowing American troops into the country to save the royal Saudi neck.

It will take years before political freedom has a chance in the Arab Middle East. Arab rulers stamp out any opposition they discover.

No illusions: the tiny pro-democracy groups that manage to survive cling to anti-Israel emotions and propaganda. They say they see the Israeli struggle against Palestinian nationalism as the major human rights issue.

Yet they exist, secretly at home, furtively abroad, and attention should be paid. An Iraqi in exile writes a book about his country whose title tells the whole story: "The Republic of Fear." In Geneva, the Arab Organization for Human Rights reports some of the truth about political murder, torture and imprisonment in the Arab countries.

The United States cannot and should not envelop them. But it is a scandal that we do not recognize their existence and help them if they wish. Once again, as in Iran, we are surrendering opposition to the rulers to the fundamentalists and we will pay for that.

Interesting, how rarely democracies war against each other, and how often they have to face dictatorships in combat. No great mystery: despots use war to satisfy their power-lust, or to distract their own people from the misery of their political and economic imprisonment.

The root of the conflict between Iraq and the United States is not in Kuwait. It is in Baghdad and in Damascus and Tripoli and all other cities of the Middle East, where government aggression against its own nation breeds aggression against a foreign nation. In the end, the only solution for war between Arab and Arab, Arab and Jew, Arab and Westerner is what the Middle East needs most, the five missing words.

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