War in Iraq is coming. The demonstrators shout, "No blood for oil!" In his State of the Union address, President Bush declares, "We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers." Which is it? Well, it ain't for oil. And it is for more than liberty.
What the demonstrators, who have the historical memory of a gnat, don't understand is that, on the contrary, oil is why America kept its distance from the region for so long. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt made alliance with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. chose to leave the Arab world to its own political and social devices so long as it remained a reasonably friendly petrol station. The arrangement lasted a very long time. Had Sept. 11 never happened, it would have lasted longer.
Sept. 11 brought home a terrible truth. It revealed a mortal enemy, even more fanatical than the vanquished scourges of the 20th century (fascism and communism), lying this time in the bosom of the Arab world. It was temporarily housed in Afghanistan, but it was not Afghan. It has non-Arab Islamic adherents, but it is not pan-Islamic. It does not speak for all Arabs, but it does speak to Arab frustrations, failures and fantasies, what Fouad Ajami has called "the dream palace of the Arabs."
Neglect, it turned out, had a price, a terrible price. After World War II, America pressed for democratic reform in Germany and Japan and throughout Western Europe and Asia. It succeeded. Democracy put down roots. Yet two regions remained exempt from this democratizing impulse: Africa, because of its chaos and lack of strategic assets; and the Middle East, because of its oil and apparent benignity.
Sept. 11 forever abolished the notion of benignity. It revealed an Arab world that had resisted modernization and democracy--and become home to the most virulent anti-Americanism on the planet. And that hatred threatens the most catastrophic consequences. Maybe not from Saddam, maybe not even from al-Qaeda. Maybe only from their emulators and successors. The players may change, but the blow will come.
Hence the awful realization: preventing the next Sept. 11 will require America to engage the Arab world the way it engaged Europe and Asia a half-century ago. Totally. We have long recoiled from such an undertaking. For decades, we tried a far more modest approach to the Arab world. It had three parts:
--Pacification: buying off and subsidizing corrupt governments.
--Policing: dealing with terrorism as a form of crime, not war.
--Patrolling: maintaining a balance of power in the region principally through an offshore naval presence.
After Sept. 11, the old offshore, hands-off, see-no-evil policy will not suffice. We now understand the cost of that abdication. It leaves a critical part of the world insulated and isolated--and incubating terrible enemies and terrible weapons.