WASHINGTON -- One major criticism of the Iraq war is that by invading Iraq the United States actually created more enemies in the Arab-Muslim world. I don't happen to believe that, but maybe it's true.
What the critics miss, though, is that the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein has also triggered the first real "conversation" about political reform in the Arab world in a long, long time. It's still mostly in private, but more is now erupting in public. For this conversation to be translated into broad political change requires a decent political outcome in Iraq. But even without that, something is stirring.
The other day, the always thoughtful Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a top figure at Egypt's semiofficial Al Ahram center for strategic studies, the most important think tank in Egypt, published an article in the country's leading political quarterly, Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya, in which he chastised those Arab commentators who argue that the way in which the United States captured Mr. Hussein was meant to humiliate Arabs.
"What we, as Arabs, should truly feel humiliated about are the prevailing political and social conditions in the Arab world -- especially in Iraq -- which allowed someone such as Saddam Hussein to ... assume the presidency. We should feel humiliated that Saddam was able ... to single-handedly initiate a number of catastrophic policies that transformed Iraq, relatively rich in natural, human and financial resources, into the poorest, most debt-ridden country in the Arab world, not to mention the hundreds of thousands killed and displaced.
"We should feel humiliated that some of our intellectuals, supposedly the representatives of our nations' consciences and the defenders of their liberty and dignity, not only dealt with Saddam, but also supported him. ... The Arabs should have been the ones to bring down Saddam, in defense of their own dignity and their own true interests."
Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of Qatar University's law school, just published an essay, in London's widely read Arabic-language daily Al Sharq Al Awsat, which asks whether the world is better off because of the U.S. ouster of Mr. Hussein. Those who say it is worse off, he argues, see only half the picture.
"Let us imagine the world if America had listened to the French and German logic saying: Give the murderers of the Serbs and the Arabs a chance for a diplomatic solution. Would Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq be liberated? Let us describe the situation of the Arabs, and especially of Iraq, had America listened to the European counsel that said: Democracy is not suited to the Arabs, their culture is contrary to it. ... See now how many countries are turning toward democracy. Even Afghanistan has a constitution. In Iraq [they are drafting] a new constitution and handing over the regime, and Libya has changed" (translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute).
Saudi Arabia's leading English-language newspaper, Arab News, published an editorial last week denouncing the murder of Iraqi police recruits by pro-al-Qaida sympathizers and "Baathist thugs." The Saudi paper asks: What do these terrorists fear? It adds: "Iraqis are keen to take back control of their country, and many are acutely aware of the opportunity they now have to build a new and fairer society. There is once again a pride in being an Iraqi. It is this growing feeling of restored honor and the rising confidence of Iraqis which is now the target of the terrorists."
Reuters reported from Damascus Feb. 5 that a Syrian human rights group has started circulating a petition via the Internet -- so far signed by about 1,000 people -- calling for an end to state-of-emergency laws. It says: "We, the signatories, herein demand the Syrian authorities lift the state of emergency and annul all associated measures." Syria recently freed more than 100 political prisoners.
The Lebanese analyst Sahar Baasiri, writing in the leading Lebanese daily An Nahar, said the response of Palestinian officials to two corruption charges -- one in a French weekly about millions of dollars reportedly transferred to Yasser Arafat's wife in Paris and the other an Israeli report about a Palestinian cement factory, owned by a prominent Palestinian family, that is alleged to be secretly providing cement for the wall Israel is building in the West Bank -- was not sufficient. "A clear and decisive Palestinian response" is required, the paper wrote.
Maybe the Iraq war made America new enemies. But it's certainly triggered a new discussion.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.