It is too small and random an event to be described as a turning point, but too significant in context to be ignored: When Saudi security forces shot it out with a small terrorist gang in Jeddah on Monday to protect the lives of U.S. diplomats, they made an important statement about the course of change in the Middle East.
In differing ways, that same point about change was made elsewhere this week -- by the inauguration in Kabul of an elected Afghan president, by the preparations in Rabat, Morocco, for a high-level conference on democratic aspirations in Islamic societies, and in Washington by the White House appointments list.
In this interlude between George W. Bush's reelection and his second inauguration, the appointments list is a better guide to the next term's priorities than any speech or policy paper. It has been filled in recent days with key leaders from the Middle East and Central Asia, not from Europe or the Orient.
At the top of the list were President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Ghazi Yawar, the interim president of Iraq. To listen to their accounts, American help has begun to turn the tide against al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist networks of the region, and opened the way to vital elections in Iraq in January.
You have every right to be skeptical about their accounts. Their fates are on the line. It is not in their interest to express doubts or dangers to scribes. My own skepticism about Musharraf's promises to the Bush administration has been stated here often and directly.
But when you hand a Pakistani general a club with which to belabor India's leadership and he declines to swing it, you know some things have changed. He turned away my question about India's intentions by noting that New Delhi is working with Pakistan toward peace and "is looking in a more westerly direction" in foreign policy.
Musharraf also candidly acknowledged that Pakistan has recently complained to Iran about nuclear weapons blueprints passed to Tehran by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and his accomplices. At least in terms of improving his credibility, Musharraf seems to be not only surviving in a difficult job but actually growing into it.
That does not mean the United States can for a moment relax the pressure on Musharraf to keep his army focused on fighting al Qaeda and its extremist Pakistani allies (some of whom are commanders in the Pakistani security services) and to make sure that U.S. aid is spent honestly and wisely, including -- despite the objections of fundamentalists at home -- funding education for girls and women.
The United States must pursue that dual approach of stressing security and supporting social modernization throughout the region. The past unquestioning friendship for dictators and intolerant autocrats failed to protect U.S. interests over the long run. Abandoning the fight against Saddam Hussein's loyalists in Iraq or the Taliban remnants in Afghanistan and Pakistan now would produce even more immediate disasters.
Change is also surfacing in Saudi Arabia, which had also been the target of a mix of U.S. strictures on security and velvety pressure on other matters, such as Saudi membership in the World Trade Organization and showing greater religious, gender and political reform in the kingdom.
At least nine people died in the firefight in the U.S. consulate compound in Jeddah. But the Saudi forces' repulse of the terrorist attack without U.S. fatalities may represent a step forward in the commitment and capabilities of the local security units. In the past, local forces have not shown much willingness to fight terrorists to protect foreigners.
Such progress is necessary, but not sufficient. The shocks still reverberating through the region from al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have produced an extraordinary fluidity: The nature of Arab nationalism and the structure of regional security are up for grabs. The United States can be neither absent from the struggle nor overbearing in channeling change that is now both irresistible and unpredictable.
The United States will not prevail over global terrorism that originates in the Middle East unless moderate Muslim political, religious and civic leaders take command in that struggle. Morocco steps up to the challenge this weekend by hosting an international forum in which Arab civil rights organizations and entrepreneurs will press their governments to modernize.
Positive change dances to a two-step rhythm in the global tinderbox. President Bush must now show that he can master the tempo he has called for the most important endeavor of his presidency.