Monday, September 26, 2005

It’s often hard to keep the big picture in focus. Television news tends to center on bombs going off in Iraq and has mostly ignored several million people voting in Afghanistan. We see footage of angry Palestinians, but not much about the progress toward democracy in Egypt. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in turn have dominated the news and have made it difficult to get a sense of what is happening in the world.

A world spinning out of control: That is what the old-line broadcast networks seem to show us.

But I see other patterns. President Bush has consistently said one reason for removing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was to advance freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Despite improvised explosive devices, that seems to be happening.

Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution was as inspiring an example of people power as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Libya has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction. Egypt, by far the largest Arab nation, had its first contested election this month. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes from Cairo, “The power of the reform movement in the Arab world today… is potent because it’s coming from the Arab societies themselves and not just from democracy enthusiasts in Washington.”

That is evidence Mr. Bush was right: Muslims and Arabs, like people everywhere, want liberty and self-rule. Afghanistan has just voted, and Iraq is about to vote a second time this year. Violence continues, but the more important story is that democracy and freedom are advancing.

True, the news is not positive everywhere. Iran seems determined not to give up its nuclear weapons programs, and efforts of the British, French and Germans have not stopped them. The good news is the British, French and Germans appear to recognize this. North Korea also, despite initialing a draft agreement, seems bent on building more nukes. The bright side is that China, the one country with leverage over Kim Jong-il, seems more inclined to use it.

The problem is evil regimes against which we have no real military options. The best hope is peaceful regime change, of the kind endorsed by Michael Ledeen on the right and Peter Ackerman on the left.

Polls show most Americans think the economy is in dreadful shape, though almost all the numbers are good: Inflation and unemployment are low, and growth is robust despite the exogenous shocks of September 11, 2001, Enron and Katrina.

After a generation of almost constant low-inflation growth, perhaps we Americans are only satisfied when we have bubble growth, as in the late 1990s, and are unimpressed when the U.S. economy again proves amazingly resilient.

This is all the more astonishing when you consider we in a time of increased competition and change, as China and India, with 37 percent of Earth’s people, are economically transforming from the Third World to the First World. Such a large proportion of mankind moving rapidly upward has never happened before and will never happen again.

Couple this with evidence Japan is growing again, after 15 years of deflation, that East Asia and Eastern Europe continue growing robustly and that major Latin countries like Mexico and Brazil are growing too, and the economic picture around the world looks pretty good, despite sclerotic nongrowth in Western Europe and continued poverty in Africa.

But even if things are going well, isn’t America hated around the world? By the elites and chattering classes of many countries, yes, and by much of the American elite and chattering class as well. But we are not competing in a popularity contest. In a unipolar world, the single superpower will always arouse envy and dislike. The relevant question is whether we can live safely in the world. The French may dislike us, but we can live comfortably with France.

The recent Pew Trust polls showing diminishing support for Islamist terrorism in Muslim countries indicate movement in the right direction. The increasing interweaving of China into the international economy suggests China may not be a military threat. A world spinning out of control? No, more like a world moving, with some backward steps, in the direction we want.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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