It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry after reading the reactions of analysts and officials in the Middle East to President Barack Obama's Cairo speech.
"It's not what he says, but what he does," many said.
No, ladies and gentlemen of the Middle East, it is what he says and what you do and what we do. We must help, but we can't want democracy or peace more than you do.
What should we be doing? The follow-up to the president's speech will have to be led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This will be her first big test, and, for me, there is no question as to where she should be putting all her energy: on the peace process.
No, not that peace process -- not the one between Israelis and Palestinians. That one's probably beyond diplomacy. No, I'm talking about the peace process that is much more strategically important -- the one inside Iraq.
The most valuable thing that Clinton could do right now is to spearhead a sustained effort -- along with the U.N., the European Union and Iraq's neighbors -- to resolve the lingering disputes between Iraqi factions before we complete our withdrawal. (We'll be out of Iraq's cities by June 30 and the whole country by the close of 2011.)
Why? Because if Iraq unravels as we draw down, the Obama team will be blamed, and it will be a huge mess. By contrast, if a decent and stable political order can take hold in Iraq, it could have an extremely positive impact on the future of the Arab world and on America's reputation.
I have never bought the argument that Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan the good war and Pakistan the necessary war. Folks, they're all one war with different fronts. It's a war within the Arab-Muslim world between progressive and anti-modernist forces over how this faith community is going to adapt to modernity -- modern education, consensual politics, the balance between religion and state, and the rights of women.
Rightly or wrongly, we stepped into the middle of this war of ideas in the Arab-Muslim world in 2003 when we decapitated the Iraqi regime and went about clumsily midwifing something that the modern Arab world has never seen before -- a horizontal dialogue between the constituent communities of an Arab state. In Iraq's case, that is primarily Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Yes, in a region that has only known top-down monologues from kings, dictators and colonial powers, we have helped Iraqis convene the first horizontal dialogue to write their own social contract for how to share power.
At first, this dialogue took place primarily through violence.
Liberated from Saddam's iron fist, each Iraqi community tested its strength against the others, saying in effect: "Show me what you got, baby." The violence was horrific. Now we've entered negotiations over how Iraq will be governed. But it's unfinished and violence could return.
And that brings me to Clinton. I do not believe the argument that Iraqis will not allow us to help mediate their disputes. For years, our president, secretary of state and secretary of defense have flown into Iraq, met leaders for a few hours and then flown away, not to return for months. We need a more serious, weighty effort.
This is important. Afghanistan is secondary. Baghdad is a great Arab and Muslim capital. Iraq has something no other Arab country has in abundance: water, oil and an educated population.
You demonstrate that Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can write their own social contract, and you will tell the whole Arab world that there is a model other than top-down monologues from iron-fisted dictators. You will expose the phony democracy in Iran, and you will leave a legacy for America that will help counter Abu Ghraib and torture.
Ultimately, which way Iraq goes will depend on whether its elites decide to use their freedom to loot their country or to rebuild it. That's still unclear. But we still have a chance to push things there in the right direction, and a huge interest in doing so. Clinton is a serious person; this is a serious job. I hope she does it.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE