May 9, 2004OP-ED
[It's her own fault, she's:]By THOMAS L.
Cursed by Oil
visited the Japanese cellphone company DoCoMo in Tokyo 10 days
ago. A robot made by Honda gave me part of the tour, even bowing in
perfect Japanese fashion. My visit there coincided with yet another
suicide bomb attack against U.S. forces in Iraq. I could not help
thinking: Why are the Japanese making robots into humans, while Muslim
suicide squads are making humans into robots?
The answer has to do in part with the interaction between culture and
natural resources. Countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China have
relatively few natural resources like oil. As a result, in the modern age,
their first instinct is to look inward, assess their weaknesses, try to
learn as much as they can from foreigners and then beat them at their own
game. In order to beat the Westerners, they have even set aside many of
their historical animosities so they can invest in each other's countries
and get all the benefits of free trade.
The Arab world, alas, has been cursed with oil. For decades, too many
Arab countries have opted to drill a sand dune for economic growth rather
than drilling their own people — men and women — in order to tap their
energy, creativity, intellect and entrepreneurship. Arab countries barely
trade with one another, and unlike Korea and Japan, rarely invent or
patent anything. But rather than looking inward, assessing their
development deficits, absorbing the best in modern knowledge that their
money can buy and then trying to beat the West at its own game, the Arab
world in too many cases has cut itself off, blamed the enduring Palestine
conflict or colonialism for delaying reform, or found dignity in Pyrrhic
victories like Falluja.
To be sure, there are exceptions. Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai,
Morocco and Tunisia are all engaged in real experiments with
modernization, but the bigger states are really lost. A week ago we were
treated again to absurd Saudi allegations that "Zionists" were behind the
latest bombing in Saudi Arabia, because, said Saudi officials, "Zionists"
clearly benefit from these acts. Someone ought to tell the Saudis this:
Don't flatter yourselves. The only interest Israelis have in Saudi Arabia
is flying over it to get to India and China — countries that actually
trade and manufacture things other than hatred of "infidels."
The Bush team has made a mess in Iraq, but the pathologies of the Arab
world have also contributed — and the sheer delight that some Arab media
take in seeing Iraq go up in flames is evidence of that. It's time for the
Arab world to grow up — to stop dancing on burning American jeeps and
claiming that this is some victory for Islam.
One thing about countries like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Japan, they
may not have deserts but they sure know the difference between the mirage
and the oasis — between victories that come from educating your population
to innovate and "victories" that come from a one-night stand by suicidal
maniacs like 9/11.
As I said, the Bush team has made a mess in Iraq. And I know that Abu
Ghraib will be a lasting stain on the Pentagon leadership. But here's what
else I know from visiting Iraq: There were a million acts of kindness,
generosity and good will also extended by individual U.S. soldiers this
past year — acts motivated purely by a desire to give Iraqis the best
chance they've ever had at decent government and a better future. There
are plenty of Iraqis and Arabs who know that.
Yes, we Americans need to look in a mirror and ask why we've become so
radioactive. But the Arabs need to look in a mirror too. "They are using
our mistakes to avoid their own necessity to change, reform and
modernize," says the Mideast expert Stephen P. Cohen.
A senior Iraqi politician told me that he recently received a group of
visiting Iranian journalists in his home. As they were leaving, he said,
two young Iranian women in the group whispered to him: "Succeed for our
sake." Those Iranian women knew that if Iraqis could actually produce a
decent, democratizing government it would pressure their own regime to
start changing — which is why the Iranian, Syrian and Saudi regimes are
all rooting for us to fail.
But you know what? Despite everything, we still have a chance to
produce a decent outcome in Iraq, if we get our eye back on the ball. Of
course, if we do fail, that will be our tragedy. But for the Arabs, it
will be a huge lost opportunity — one that will only postpone their future
another decade. Too bad so few of them have the courage to stand up and
say that. I guess it must be another one of those "Zionist" plots.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times