For more than 30 years, Yasser Arafat has symbolized the Age of Immobilism in Arab politics. The goal of leaders from Rabat to Baghdad was survival, and whatever their nominal ideology, their real object was to maintain the status quo. And until Sept. 11, the United States -- as adept as the Arabs at status-quo politics -- fit right in.
This week's news that Arafat is seriously ill is a reminder that Arabs are entering a new era. The icebergs that have frozen Arab political life are breaking up. That melting of the status quo may sound liberating, but a turbulent passage lies ahead. Even Arafat, for all his iconic status as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, hasn't been able to cope with the forces of change.
I first interviewed Arafat in 1981 at his headquarters in Beirut. He arrived after 1 a.m., as was his habit, surrounded by gun-toting aides. Looking back, what's striking is how much of the conversation could have taken place this year. Arafat had spent that day juggling political pressures from different Arab regimes; he talked with me about peace plans, but always with caveats; he sought to woo U.S. support, rather than negotiate openly with Israel. "We are not the red Indians," he told me, using a phrase he has probably repeated a thousand times since.
Summarizing that interview, I wrote that Arafat had learned an unfortunate lesson: "It is much easier to stand still than to try to move forward." That could be the epitaph for a whole generation of Arab leaders. With the connivance of the United States, and with the permanent excuse of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they clung to the status quo year after year, decade after decade.
America's invasion of Iraq shattered the status quo -- toppling Saddam Hussein, the cruelest symbol of the Age of Immobilism. The Bush administration had concluded that the status quo was deadly -- for Americans and Israelis, and most of all for the Arab people. The idea was to open the door to what I described optimistically in my prewar columns as "the Arab future."
The past 20 months have been a painful education in how violent and unpredictable those forces of change can be. But the turmoil sweeping Iraq is driven by forces much deeper and more powerful than a hatred of America. We have become an object of that rage for change, but we didn't create it. Nor should we necessarily want to stop it.
Hussein, like Arafat, was a cap on a bottle that was ready to explode. Because the United States chose to pry it off in Iraq, it has gotten caught by the percussion. President Bush's decision to force open the bottle may prove as unwise as kicking over a bee's nest. But Sept. 11 showed that the violence of the Islamic world was coming to America anyway.
What will follow the politics of immobilism? The only certainty is that it will be messy. The Arab world is in a period of revolutionary turmoil; the best analogy I've heard recently is to 1848 -- the year that Europe was swept by a vortex of revolution and rage. The anarchy was contained, mostly from a distance, by the leading status-quo power of the time, Britain. But what really stabilized Europe was that revolutionary France, the nation that had set the turmoil in motion, gradually came of age and became a status-quo power itself.
That may be the best we can hope for in the Arab world: It is finally living its own history. The process of change will be violent and will almost certainly be accompanied by a virulent anti-Americanism. The United States, unfortunately, will remain a target for decades. But if America and its allies are sensible, the Muslim world could evolve as 19th-century Europe did, toward modern and democratic nations.
Americans will vote Tuesday as if their decisions could alter this violent history. It's an important election, to be sure, because it could determine whether the United States struggles alone to contain the Islamic volcano or does so in concert with its European allies. But it's a mistake to think that either candidate can change the forces that are loose in the Islamic world. We are on the roller coaster of history now; there's no easy exit.
Arafat has been a symbolic figure of the era that is passing, because he managed to stay so long on the lip of the volcano. But even he could not contain the eruption. It's coming, and the job for wise leaders is to channel the flow and avoid getting burned.