September 7, 2005 •3 Elul, 5765
Volume 4, Issue 35

Why America Reels from Katrina, Winds of Change Rattle Our Region: Syria Stumbles, Sanctions Loom Large, and Egypt Votes



The following article was written by Eran Lerman the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office in Jerusalem. Dr. Lerman joined AJC in 2001 after a distinguished career in the Israeli Defense Forces where he rose to the rank of colonel and held the position of assistant for strategic analysis at the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence Research and Production Division. This article is from the American Jewish Committee’s Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs and can be viewed on AJC’s website at: //www.ajc.org

It was not easy for anyone in the Middle East (let alone in Israel, where "America" is often synonymous with "quality" and "can do") to reconcile what we saw this week: the Third Coast of the United States looking frighteningly like the Third World at its worst. At least one reporter for a major Israeli newspaper took to describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in purely racist and class-oriented terms: White America was abandoning poor blacks to their fate, and shooting those who were fighting their way out. But the alternative explanations-ordinary human folly and governmental incompetence-were not very reassuring, either.

Just a few days ago, we half-jokingly spoke with our friends at IsrAid, who had accomplished so much in Sri Lanka, with AJC (among others) supporting their mission, about going to New Orleans. Of course, it seemed obvious to all of us back then (two days can seem like an eon, at times) that the greatest power on earth would not need the services of an Israeli NGO and its small band of volunteers, dedicated and professional as they might be. Think again: They are now getting ready to go, with a donor for their tickets and a nod from the U.S. Embassy here-without even waiting for FEMA to talk things over in detail with the Israeli government. As Israel weighs an official aid package, the world seems upside down; in Hamlet's words, "The time is out of joint."

Coupled with the scenes of carnage during the bridge stampede in Baghdad, the images from Louisiana and Mississippi will leave their mark for years. They serve to confirm totalitarian radicals all over the region-those who don the garb of religion and those who do not-that arrogant America, and her friends, have had their Divine comeuppance, or alternatively, that we are witnessing the collapse of the corrupt class system. They sow worry and doubt among those (like us in Israel) whose survival and well-being depends, to some extent, upon American competence. It is too early to tell how deep the imprint will be on everything from oil prices to the viability of the "American project" in faraway lands.

It is at times like these when we need to remind ourselves of some basic verities: Democracies often fail their citizens, sometimes badly, even catastrophically, and yet they offer a way out, a way forward. Totalitarian systems often serve their subjects well, with ruthless efficiency, at moments of crisis. Military-like mobilization is, after all, the essence of what they stand for, but they lead their people into a dead end. The malignant nature of the Nazi experiment is an ever-present reminder, even as the lives of those who survived it are fading away. In the writings of those who lived under the Soviet system, the lessons are still fresh, be they of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, our own Natan Sharansky, or an upholder of Muslim and tribal traditions of the Kyrgyz, Chingis Aytmatov, whose magical novel, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years (A Blizzard Way Station), tears at the heartstrings more than anything I've read in recent years. Now comes the modern totalitarian perversion of Islam, which claims the right to slaughter thousands (or millions, if they ever win real power in the core areas of the region) in pursuit of the absolute. "All utopias are murderous," wrote Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer. "Radical, apocalyptic, universal utopias are genocidal."

There are enough people in the Muslim world today who understand this-not least because of the present American effort, despite its obvious shortcomings and imperfections, despite the broad shortcomings and imperfections of the United States as a whole. Just within the last few days, and within the days soon to come, three major developments mark huge stepping-stones toward a different future-all of which would have received much greater attention had not events such as the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and Northern Samaria, the catastrophe in Baghdad, and Hurricane Katrina not obscured them:

In Iraq, the constitutional process, for all its obvious faults and failures, is inching forward, backed by a solid majority of this fractured country, which has not known any participatory politics for two generations.

In Egypt, still in many ways the symbolic core of the region, and certainly the most populous and influential of all Arabic-speaking countries, the vote this week will be the first (again, in generations) with more than one candidate for the supreme position of the presidency. True, Hosni Mubarak will win easily; true, this is not nearly the "democracy" it pretends to be. But the very sight of election posters with more than one face on them is an eye-opener.

Most significantly, the breakthrough in the investigation of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination in Lebanon-led by a capable German prosecutor, Detlef Mehlis, appointed by the UN-has already become a decisive tool toward the destruction of the repressive and murderous system of Syrian toadies within the Lebanese security services (a few of whom are now under arrest). Moreover, it may yet lead to the fall of President Emile Lahoud, Syria's chief agent, and to the imposition of effective international sanctions against Bashar Assad's regime, one of the last totalitarian holdouts in a changing region.

Not an insignificant crop of events for a relatively short period of time-and yet, as of now, they have all been marginalized by the more visible and heavily reported developments. Not for long. It is the seeds planted in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria that will bear decisive fruit in the long run-particularly if they help isolate the mullahs' regime in Iran, which remains the most active danger to the peaceful transformation of the Middle East.

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