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Home >> Articles

Note: This is not a memo by President Clinton, but an article written by the author below.

Memo to: The Arab Street

By Thomas L. Friedman

From: President Bill Clinton
To the Arab street

Dear ladies and gentlemen, over the last few years I've often written your leaders, but now that my term is ending I've decided my last letter should be to you, the Arab masses, the Arab street, who have paid such a high price for this ongoing conflict.

I'm going to be blunt. I've done all I could to build a fair, realistic pathway out of the Arab-Israeli conflict for both you and the Israelis, but if you want to continue fighting it out and avoiding a deal that gives you 95 percent of what you want, well, there's nothing more I can do.

But there is something I can say, and it's this: What troubles me most about the mood on the Arab street today is the hostility I detect there to modernization, globalization, demo cratization and the information revolution. What you do with the Israelis is up to you now, but what you do with your own societies is going to affect the stability of the whole Middle East.

Where other countries are focused on developing world-class competitive industries, you are still focused on protecting your uncompetitive ones. Where others are aggressively trading with the world, you barely trade with each other. Where others are freeing their presses, you are still controlling yours. Where other world leaders are building their legitimacy by pushing education, most of yours are still building their legitimacy by pushing a religious conflict. Where others are seeking foreign investors in order to create jobs for their young people, you are driving off foreign investors with unfriendly bureaucracies and pursuit of a conflict that scares everyone away from your region. In an age when others are making microchips, you are making potato chips.

I would have thought that this reality would be a hotly debated subject among your elites, and I know some have raised it. But for the most part your intellectuals, pundits and parliamentarians, rather than fostering an honest debate, prefer to make excuses. When I ask Arab leaders why South Korea had roughly the same per capita income in the early 1950's as Syria or Egypt, and now South Korea is a highly developed country and Syria and Egypt are still developing, the answer I get is that the Arab states had to fight wars. Well, South Korea had a struggle with North Korea for decades. Another excuse I get is that the Arab states had population problems. Well, so does China, and it's been growing at 10 percent per year.

Your intellectuals seem more interested in protecting their perks, by coming up with excuses for the weakness of their regimes, rather than fostering an honest debate.

I realize that the issue of Israel, and who rules over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, touches the soul of the Arab street. I would not think of asking you to give up on controlling your religious sites. But I would urge you to consider asking more than one question. Who rules al Aksa mosque is critical for the dignity of every Arab and Palestinian Muslim in the modern world. But what sort of education you offer your kids, what sort of economy you build and what sort of rule of law you establish will also determine your dignity and standing in the modern world. You should be concerned with answering the old questions, but you have to recognize that they are not the only questions.

There has to be a balance. A society that forgets its roots will never be stable. But a society that is preoccupied with its roots, and is asking the question only of who owns which root, will never grow into the world or bear fruit. Your intellectuals don't care. They eat the fruit no matter what. They are protected by the regimes, while they keep you living only by the old questions and the old role models. In doing so, they ensure that you never reach your full potential.

I understand you get frustrated with America. But when you follow the Arab elites into supporting Saddam Hussein, I don't understand. Forget about us, think about this man and what he has done to his neighbors, the poison gas he has used on his own people, the generation of Iraqis he has destroyed. Is this a role model? Is this the sort of Arab leader you want for your own societies?

I hope not. I hope one day soon I will see an intifada not only for an independent Palestine but for Arab education, for Arab free press, for Arab legality, for Arab democracy. An Arab street that can ask only one question will, in the end, not be a very nice place to raise your kids.

Bill Clinton

(c) 2000 The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission
This memo first appeared on the new york times. January 12th issue, in the opinon section.

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