Consider the shock and awe of good news:

North Korea dropped its bluster and endorsed the multilateral talks that the United States insisted on. China decided it was a good idea to join those talks. (“The Iraq war has brought a change,” said a professor of international studies at People’s University in Beijing.) Iran’s former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggested a national referendem on restoring ties to the United States. Palestinian terrorist Abul Abbas was captured, nearly 18 years after directing the attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Ariel Sharon said Israel would have to give up some settlements to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Most of these reactions come not from the result of U.S. intervention, which was never in doubt, but from the swift and stunning nature of the victory. (Sharon’s statement is arguably separate.) Iraqi forces were not impressive, but few predicted the speed and precision of American and British troops, or the low casualties — about five deaths per day of combat.

The swift taking of Baghdad surprised everybody. As Victor Davis Hanson writes, “The Soviets had learned that trying to take an Islamic city is not an easy thing and can lead to thousands of dead.” Stories out of Russia report the consternation of military planners there at the brilliant tactics and performance of coalition forces. High competence and power get the world’s full attention, particularly when combined with intelligence and restraint.

Conventional wisdom suffered yet another series of defeats. No wave of terrorism greeted the American campaign. Neither foreign troops nor suicide bombers paralyzed American and British forces. The Arab “street” did not rise. Many people, of course, insisted that Arabs were being colonized again by Western powers in search of oil. No surprise there. But that message contains dissonance now. It’s hard to explain that the dread crusaders have taken over again when everyone can see the Iraqi people exulting.

For once in the Middle East, the United States has intervened on behalf of the people, not to prop up yet another regional autocrat. This profoundly liberal step could alter the usual anti-Western discourse in the region. It may gradually erode what professor Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins calls the “road rage” of a thwarted Arab world steeped in “a political tradition of belligerent self- pity.”

Some voices in the Arab world are already clear that freedom in one nation will create pressure for reforms in others. This “could be the beginning of transformation in the Arab region,” said Tarek al-Absi, a Yemeni university professor — a transformation, he added, that can’t occur without Western help.

Many hope that the first “demonstration effects” will be felt in Iran, where reformers hope for a breakthrough against a repressive regime. Anxiety must be rising among all the dictators in the neighborhood. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is no Saddam Hussein, but there are pictures of Mubarak all over Egypt, and the destruction of the Saddam statues in Iraq must give him pause. Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the area is full of leaders “who have not had the best interests of their people at heart. They should look at the Iraqi people and worry.”

Syria, the current target of some frank bullying by the United States, will be under more and more pressure to change. According to one estimate, 29 terrorist groups are sheltered in Damascus. Syria occupies Lebanon and protects the terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has active cells on four continents. Last fall Sen. Bob Graham, D- Fla., called on the Bush administration to order Syria to shut down the Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon and to destroy the camps if Syria refused. That hasn’t happened, partly because Syria is helping in the fight against al- Qaida.

Changing Iraq is the most moderate way to press for reform in the Middle East. Religious extremism and poverty are unlikely to be problems. Iraq is heavily secular and has plenty of oil. But it has severe ethnic and tribal conflict and a revenge culture that could summon the nightmare of Yugoslavia. Before it undertakes any other missions in the area, the United States has to set up a federated political system that is at least benign, if not fully democratic. The Kurds in the north, under protection of the no-fly zone, have evolved a relatively successful political system. A system that funnels oil money to all citizens, as in Chad and the state of Alaska, would ease tensions and demonstrate fairness.

It would also quickly gain the full attention of the Saudis. The whole world is watching this attempt by one nation to transform Iraq’s political culture. This is an effort fraught with danger, but we can’t allow it to fail. That means we have to stay as long as necessary.


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AP-NY-04-18-03 1236EDT

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