In December 2004, I wrote a column that led with this line: “Mark it on your calendar: Next month, the Arab Middle East will revolt.”
The column placed the January 2005 Palestinian and Iraqi elections in historical context. These were not the revolutions of generals with tanks and terrorists with fatwas, but the slow revolutions of the ballot box, with political moderates and liberal reformers the genuinely revolutionary vanguard. To massage Winston Churchill’s phrase, these revolts were the beginning of democratic politics, where “jaw jaw” begins to replace “war war” and “terror terror.”
These slow revolts against tyranny and terror continue, and are the “big story” of 2005 and the truly “big history” of our time.
Partisan, ignorant, fear-filled rhetoric tends to obscure this big history, in part because the big story moves slowly. The democratic revolt is grand drama, but it doesn’t cram into a daily news cycle, much less “news updates” every 30 minutes.
Television, the medium where image is a tyrant, finds incremental economic and political development a particularly frustrating story to tell. A brick is visually boring — a bomb is not. The significance of a brick takes time to explain, time to establish context, while a spectacular explosion incites immediate visceral and emotional responses. In the long term, hope that democracy will replace tyranny and terror may propel millions. But in the short haul, violence and vile rhetoric, like sex and celebrity, guarantee an immediate audience.
So the “big stories” get lost in the momentum of the “now.”
In April 2004, I interviewed former U.S. senator (and September 11 commission member) Bob Kerrey. The subject was Iraq and the War on Terror in “historical terms.” Mr. Kerrey had argued in a late 2003 speech that “20 years from now, we’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says it wasn’t worth the effort. This is not just another democracy. This [Iraq] is a democracy in the Arab world.”
“If you look beyond the short-term violence and instability [in Iraq],” Mr. Kerrey told me, “you do see significant activities on the part of the Iraqi people that indicate they understand the commitment necessary to govern themselves. … There are going to be in the short term terrifying, confusing moments, [like] attacks on Iraqi police headquarters. The intent [by the opposition] is to produce destabilization, to cause people to say, ‘Let’s get out of here; they don’t like us.’ … If we stay, then I am very confident that Iraq will build a stable democracy.”
That’s a clear statement of U.S. strategy in Iraq. Here’s my formulation, from February 2003: “Removing Saddam begins the reconfiguration of the Middle East, a dangerous, expensive process, but one that will lay the foundation for true states where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted.”
Carrying out the policies and sustaining the will to achieve these goals is of course immensely difficult. It’s a painfully slow process — too slow, it appears, for television.
The Iraqi people, however, see it. In October, after the Iraqi constitutional vote, an Iraqi friend dropped me an e-mail: “Major players [in Iraq] are coming more and more to realize that dialogue, alliances, common interests and just plain politics is the way to win — not violence, intimidation and terror. So this [lesson] is apparently slowly ‘sinking in’ in our confused and frightened Iraqi mentality.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said the constitution is “a sign of civilization. … This constitution has come after heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth.”
Mr. Jaafari echoed a sentiment I heard last year while on active duty in Iraq. Several Iraqis told me they knew democracy was “our big chance,” as one man said to “escape bad history.” To paraphrase a couple of other Iraqis, toppling Saddam and building a more open society was a chance “to enter the modern world.”
The great democratic revolts are profoundly promising history. They are the big story of 2005 — and, for that matter, the next three or four decades.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.