Dear Ali,

Yes, your e-mail was literally a blast from the past. Who could have imagined when we met all those years ago in the Middle East that one day we could exchange greetings, thoughts and tough questions almost instantaneously on an Internet from different sides of the globe?

You say you write as an old friend, and as an Arab who cannot understand why Iraqis may soon have to die so Americans can control Iraq's oil. You feel betrayed: I seem to you to endorse that position. You deserve an answer to that wrongheaded assumption -- as an old friend, and as an Arab. Let me try briefly.

I have long understood your frustration over the fact that people in my country have come to associate the word "Arab" with only three things: oil, Islam and terrorism. Most Americans have not experienced the quick hospitality, the sly humor, the thirst for knowledge and other admirable qualities known to those of us who have lived and worked among your people.

But let's be honest. "Arabness" has become a restrictive and at times racialist concept for too many of your governments, politicians and intellectuals. It is the basis on which Saddam Hussein appeals to you to support and protect him and his murdering regime against the "crusaders." He can have no other saving grace in your eyes.

Let me put that as a question: Is it loyalty to the concept of "the Arab nation" that has led you and your colleagues in the foreign ministry to remain silent as the Baghdad regime has murdered, wounded and ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Shiites and other Iraqis over three decades? Only now do you show concern about the fate of individual Iraqis, as the danger targets the Sunni minority that holds power in Baghdad.

Arabness in this sense is used as a shield against change itself. In too many countries in your region, ethnic and religious minorities -- and women -- are suppressed in the name of pan-Arabism and even Islam. Able to buy popular acquiescence or oppressive security networks through their vast oil revenue, royal families, dictators and other authoritarian rulers portray their determination to hold power as a cultural phenomenon.

Saddam Hussein seeks to save his skin by rekindling a corrupt and malignant form of Arab unity, which is supposedly more important than or somehow superior to universal human rights, justice or democracy. Do not fall for it. Do not enter the 21st century addicted to such delusions and distortions of your culture. And do not let justified concern over Israel's occupation of Palestinian land turn into self-blinding hatred and prejudice.

Iraqi casualties and suffering in an American-led assault on Saddam Hussein's military and his weapons of mass destruction will be tragic. Such suffering has been tragic for the past 30 years, even though it was caused by Arab hands. Diplomacy, economic sanctions, appeals from Arab summits and everything else have failed to stop the organized murder, tyranny and support for terrorism. This is the last resort.

You ask if I think the Iraqi casualties that the assault will bring can be justified. Only if every effort is made by the attacking force to minimize casualties. Only if a government emerges in Baghdad that recognizes and enforces the rights of all of Iraq's citizens to protection and freedom. Only if that government renounces terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as its first order of business. War must redeem itself through the methods it employs and the results it produces.

That brings me to oil. Ali, this is not Big Oil's war. Big Oil is interested in price and supply stability. War is bad for both. Yes, Bush and Cheney come from oil backgrounds. But I think that inclines them to want a Goldilocks world: oil prices that are neither too high nor too low but just right, in the range of $25 to $28 a barrel, which suits OPEC, Russia and Texas. You don't go to war in oil fields to achieve that result, or to improve your economy or your approval ratings. The downside risks in all those cases are too high.

You are right on one big point: The United States cannot remake the Arab world by waging war in one country, even one as important as Iraq. That is a task that will fall to you, Ali, and to others who must build a new sense of unity that encompasses universal human values as well as regional characteristics. I wish you well. It is important to us all.