Fareed Zakaria, TV star, columnist and author, gave a brainy, smooth and mostly quite optimistic lecture on the Arab upheavals Friday at the University of Minnesota.
Finally the Middle East is joining the modern world, Zakaria said. We should be celebrating.
Speaking days before President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, Zakaria also said that the changes sweeping the regions are bad for Al Qaida and a big win for us.
Zakaria, born in India, educated at Harvard and Yale, is now host of a CNN Sunday show and writes for Time and the Washington Post.
Speaking for 40 minutes without notes, he ignored the podium on the stage at the Ted Mann Theater and just wandered the stage summarizing 2,000 years of Arab history in his opening minutes.
Arab culture burst out of its original home in the Arab Peninsula (what’s now Saudi Arabia) in the era of Mohammed and Arabs spread their military control, their culture and especially their new religion over a huge area that includes the modern Mideast and big swaths of Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
But once the expansion stopped, Arab power shrank and shrank. Arabs have really been dominated by outsiders (Persians, Mongols, Turks and — since the 19th century — Westerners) for more than 1,000 years. The modern Middle East still consists mostly of borders drawn by the British and the French after World War I.
In the one-superpower world that took hold after the Soviet collapse, Arab states had to choose whether to accept a form of subservience to Washington, or go the dangerous road of outlaw regimes like Syria, Libya and Saddams Iraq.
Why its a blow to Al Qaida
The rise Al Qaida-style terrorism owed much to the impression. And Zakaria didn’t suggest that this impression was false that the despised Arab regimes of many states were able to exploit and repress their people only because they enjoyed U.S. friendship and support, with the hated kleptocracy of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as a leading example.
Al Qaida has argued to the angry young men of the Arab world that that the only way to get rid of the quisling tyrants is to embrace a radical Islamicist agenda and attack the United States. That story had some persuasive power in the past.
The 9/11 attack was, to some extent, a message to America that there was a price to playing this game, and in recent years, the United States has lost much of its former will to keep playing it, Zakaria said.
The change in U.S. attitude the dawning awareness on the Arab street that Washington would not necessarily rush in to save the friendly dictators like Mubarak contributed to the willingness of Arab populations to put their bodies on the line demanding change.
Our support for these regimes became qualified, Zakaria said, and the change was sensed by the frustrated populations, symbolized by the calculation of the protesters in Carios Tahrir Square that there was a limit to what the United States would do to save Mubarak. They were right and other countries are following the lead.
Now that peaceful non-Islamicist demonstrators have toppled some of these regimes and the U.S. has been largely accommodating to the topplings, Zakaria said, Al Qaida doesnt have an answer and is losing its raison detre.
We are entering a new phase: and it will be a bumpy ride. But Zakaria rejected the idea that other powers will swoop in as the new sponsors of Mideast dictators. Those relationships are booby prizes, Zakaria said. Let them have it.
Sharon Schmickle: Sense of justice is satisfied, but are we safer?
Derek Wallbank: Minnesota’s political leaders come together
Slide show: World reacts to the death of Osama bin Laden
Eric Black: Fareed Zakaria assesses Arab upheavals in U of M talk
Max Sparber: Artistic first responses to bin Laden’s death
Remarks by the President on Osama bin Laden
Related: Press briefing by senior administration officials on the killing of Osama bin Laden