Pop-Tarts or Freedom?
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
In the wake of U.S. aid to help Muslim and other victims of the recent tsunami, Colin Powell suggested that maybe, now that the Muslim world had seen "American generosity" and "American values in action," it wouldn't be so hostile to America.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a thank-you card. If the fact that American soldiers have risked their lives to save the Muslims of Bosnia, the Muslims of Kuwait, the Muslims of Somalia, the Muslims of Afghanistan and the Muslims of Iraq has earned the U.S. only the false accusation of being "anti-Muslim," trust me, U.S. troops passing out bottled water and Pop-Tarts in Indonesia are not going to erase that lie. It is not an exaggeration to say that, if you throw in the Oslo peace process, U.S. foreign policy for the last 15 years has been dominated by an effort to save Muslims - not from tsunamis, but from tyrannies, mostly their own theocratic or autocratic regimes.
It clearly has not made much of an impression. So you will pardon me if I say that I don't care whether the state media in Saudi Arabia - whose government gave far less to the Muslim tsunami victims ($30 million) than the amount spent by King Fahd's entourage on his last two vacations in Marbella (reportedly $100 million) - say nice things about us.
I believe the tensions between us and the Muslim world stem primarily from the conditions under which many Muslims live, not what we do. I believe free people, living under freely elected governments, with a free press and with economies and education systems that enable their young people to achieve their full potential, don't spend a lot of time thinking about who to hate, who to blame, and who to lash out at. Free countries don't have leaders who use their media and state-owned "intellectuals" to deflect all of their people's anger away from them and onto America.
Ah, you say, but the Europeans live in free-market democracies and they have become very anti-American. Yes, some of them. But for Europeans, anti-Americanism is a hobby. For too many in the Muslim world it has become a career.
I am sure that young Taiwanese, young Koreans, young Japanese, young Poles and young Indians have their views on America, but they are not an obsession. They want our jobs, not our lives. They live in societies that empower their young people to realize their full potential and to express any opinion - pro-American, anti-American or neutral.
So I don't want young Muslims to like us. I want them to like and respect themselves, their own countries and their own governments. I want them to have the same luxury to ignore America as young Taiwanese have - because they are too busy focusing on improving their own lives and governance, running for office, studying anything they want or finding good jobs in their own countries.
The Bush team is certainly not fostering all this when it mismanages a war it launched to liberate the people of Iraq. Its performance has been pathetic, and I understand anyone on the right or the left who wants to wash his hands of the whole thing. Speaking personally, though, I am still hoping that these Iraqi elections come off - out of respect for the Iraqis who have been ready to risk their lives for a chance to vote, out of contempt for the insurgents who want to prevent that and out of a deep conviction that something very important is at stake.
No, these elections won't change Iraq or the region overnight, and Thomas Jefferson is not on the ballot. But they will at least kick off what the Iraq expert Yitzhak Nakash calls "a real, Iraqi political process run by and for Iraqis."
That Iraqi political process "has to begin now to enable the U.S. to get out sooner rather than later," added Mr. Nakash, a Brandeis professor and currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. "The U.S. must go ahead with the elections in Iraq, accept the likelihood that Shiites and Kurds will do well, and leave the door open to Sunnis to join as partners in writing the Iraqi constitution. We want a system there that answers to the aspirations of Iraqis, not Americans. That is the key to a legitimate Iraqi government."
Before the war, I said of Iraq, "We break it, we own it." Today, my motto is, "If they own it, they'll fix it." America's standing in the Muslim world will improve, not when we get a better message, but when they have more control. People with the responsibility and opportunity to run their own lives focus on their own lives - not on us. More of that would be a very good thing.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company