It's not often that history affords one the opportunity to run a grand experiment, but with the present war in Iraq, Bush administration officials are planning to run what may be the greatest historical experiment since the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. That's because this war is not only about removing a nasty dictator who flouts U.N. resolutions and happens to be sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world; it is also about remaking the Middle East in our democratic image. At least that is the hope of the neoconservative thinkers who are the intellectual authors of Bush administration policy in the Middle East.
Exactly how this project will play out is anyone's guess. In the unlikely event that elections were held in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, they would likely install someone with views not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden's.
Whatever the long-term outcome of the war in Iraq, any reasonable observer of the Middle East would have to agree that the region has dire problems. Over the past two decades, the academic left in this country held it as a tenet of quasi-theological faith that Western discussions of Middle Eastern problems were inherently biased or flawed. Sept. 11 destroyed whatever currency that notion once had. Moreover, in some quarters of the Arab world today, there is refreshing evidence of self-examination about "what went wrong," best demonstrated by the release of the unglamorously named "Arab Human Development Report 2002." Written by Arab intellectuals, the report highlights the dearth of freedom, the lack of civil society, the widespread illiteracy and the dismal status of women in the Arab world. These social problems have economic consequences. It is not an accident that if you subtract oil revenues from the GDP of all the Persian Gulf countries, their total output is the same as . . . Finland's. . . .