It is the week before Christmas. In New York this has come to mean a few things: a traffic jam at Kennedy airport as people head for the slopes of Utah, a traffic jam at Lincoln Center for the families attending The Nutcracker - and a terror alert. On Saturday the all-news radio station warns every 20 minutes of terrorist "chatter".
So comes the question: are New York and London any safer than they were before? What has the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes yielded? Where has the talk of democracy for the Middle East led? Sure, there have been battles. But has anything really changed?
The answer is Yes. And in this holiday week, we are at last beginning to see the benefits of that change. They reflect progress towards two Bush goals: the goal of stopping dangerous regimes and the goal of supplanting them with more democratic ones.
Consider recent days. First came the capture of Saddam Hussein in his spider hole. This was the longed-for punctuation mark at the end of a lengthy Iraq story.
But attending Mr Hussein's capture come several other bits of news that are just beginning to sink in. The first is that Mr Hussein was arrested in Iraq - not in Syria, not in North Korea. Even rogues in their regimes knew it was not in their interest to welcome Iraq's fleeing leader. Much has been made of divisions among the world's nations over the invasion of Iraq. Those divisions have been real. But Mr Hussein's capture inside Iraq shows that in one very literal way the world did indeed stand together.
The next bit of news is that among the first people Mr Hussein was permitted to encounter were four men associated with the provisional government in Baghdad. There, sitting in the same room, were Mowaffak al-Rubaie, whom Mr Hussein's men had once tortured, and Ahmad Chalabi, once an obscure Iraqi exile. The drama of the reversal of roles was so astounding that, as Mr Rubaie told the newspapers, it made everyone feel that "the world is crazy".
However, what the meeting in fact made clear was the opposite: that the world is not crazy. At last, sane, practical people have a chance at becoming Iraq's new leaders. The encounter also demonstrated - rather valuably - what a small fellow Mr Hussein turns out to have been. Mr Chalabi, especially, deflated the monster by pointing out, rather coldly, that Mr Hussein was a well known psychological type: "It was clear he was a complete narcissist who was incapable of showing remorse or sympathy to other human beings."
Now comes the news that Muammer Gadaffi has admitted to a programme of weapons of mass destruction - and agreed to allow international inspectors into Libya to verify and eliminate those weapons. This follows painstaking negotiations on the part of, especially, Britain. The breakthrough came at the Travellers' Club in London's Pall Mall. But the timing is also due to the large gamble taken by Mr Blair and George W. Bush. It was that a serious display of allied resolve toward certain terrorists or rogues would yield dividends with all rogues or dictators. Jets did not have to drop bombs on Tripoli for Mr Gadaffi to give in .
This represents another reversal - a reversal of the 1990s dynamic, when even bombing raids had an inconsequential, even an antic, quality to them.
On Sunday Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Bush policy and Reagan policy before it, reflected on the arc of history. Two years ago, he recalls, "we said that if our efforts with Afghanistan and Iraq were successful, our diplomacy then could be simplified to two words: 'You're next.' The point was not 'we are going to invade you next'. It was 'we are going to turn to you next'." And, Mr Perle concluded, the violence-free "you're next" policy would then become enormously efficient.
Libya seems to be the first sign that the Perle thesis is indeed working. This is in spite of the fact that at the time he first mentioned it, Mr Perle was ridiculed for his strategy.
This brings us to another, subtler change: the change in western governments and western public opinion. By 2000, after Yugoslavia, people tended to believe that Europe would remain safe and democratic because the west was willing to resist the likes of Slobodan Milosevic. The second world war model of the moral war prevailed. Africa and the Middle East, by contrast, were relegated to another paradigm: the Vietnam paradigm, in which the US was not serious and would retreat.
That distinction is now fading. European-scale change seems possible in the Middle East. In Iraq, we are hearing stories about the return of the country's entrepreneurial culture. Mr Chalabi and other candidates for future Iraqi leadership are being taken seriously. And when, last week, Mr Bush signed into law the Syria Accountability and Lebanon Sovereignty Act it was more than the quaint gesture it might have once seemed. It was, rather, a general recognition that new regimes in those countries are possible as well. The western recognition of the possibility of democracy in the Middle East is crucial since, for better or for worse, the Middle East often follows the western lead.
All of this brings us back to Christmas, and the question: are New York and London safe? No, the answer is, they are not. But they are, at last, becoming safer. And that is the change.
© Copyright 2003 Financial Times
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