Keep the welcome mat out for Arab visitors

Vice President Dick Cheney last week promised that the American goal for Iraq after a regime change is for it to have "a government that is democratic and pluralistic."

That is a worthy objective and would be a distinct improvement for a country whose present leader is, in Mr. Cheney's words, "evil, power-hungry, and a menace."

It is also a worthy objective for a number of other countries whose regimes are undemocratic but are generally friendly to, and supportive of, America.

Important countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan come swiftly to mind, as well as other countries in the Islamic world, where democracy is conspicuously absent.

Bringing democracy to Iraq was on the agenda in Crawford, Texas, last week when President Bush met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's key man about Washington. But bringing democracy to Saudi Arabia was not.

It is more difficult for the United States to urge democracy upon undemocratic regimes to which it is beholden than it is to demand it of unfriendly dictatorships of which it would like to dispose.

But such urging is nonetheless essential, for most of America's present problems lie within the Islamic world, and it is precisely this world, steeped in backwardness, ignorance, and despotism, that must be drawn out of its dangerous darkness and into a world prosperous and free.

Various are the channels of communication for achieving this. There are the summit meetings between presidents and prime ministers. There is high-level private diplomacy between ambassadors and governments. There is public diplomacy, the effort by radio broadcasting and other media and public relations techniques to sway public opinion.

But as I ponder this challenge, my thought turns not to political bigwigs like Bandar (of Saudi Arabia) and Hosni (Mubarak of Egypt) and Pervez (Musharraf of Pakistan) with whom George Bush, with his friendly Texan manner, undoubtedly consorts on a first-name basis, but to Andrey and Agron and Tamar and Mirjana and Sylvana.

Who are they?

Andrey and Agron and Tamar and Mirjana and Sylvana are youngish journalists, picked for their talent and potential, who were brought one at a time over the past several years to the United States under a couple of private media programs with which I am involved. Their experience, if replicated, might offer one more useful component in the bid to make American values more widely understood.

Because the programs were focused on eastern Europe, my visitors came, respectively, from Tajikistan and Kosovo and Georgia and Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Typically, they stayed with my newspaper for a month studying American journalistic techniques, although one was assigned to a university and its educational TV station for three months. We quartered them with families of our employees, and their encounter with the American way of life and culture was as dramatic as their professional experience.

Four of the five had never set foot in the US before. All of them were dazzled, often overwhelmed by the choice of material goods, by the kindness and generosity of people they had never met before, and by the freedoms of American journalists in particular and American citizens in general.

Each of them came from a background of struggle for freedom and independence.

They did not agree with all things American. In late-night pizza huddles they argued with their hosts about US foreign policy, race relations, Hollywood, American TV, and especially the slender coverage of each of their countries in the US press. Mirjana disagreed with US policy toward prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic. Andrey found American football "boring" and riled the women on our staff by calling American women "spoiled."

But though they came in successive years and never met one another, they were of one mind about the lure of American democracy, and its inspiration for them to continue the struggle for freedom and independence when they returned to their own lands.

It is this inspiration that we must somehow engender in the emerging generation in Arab lands, 51 percent of whom expressed dissatisfaction with current conditions in their countries and indicated a desire to emigrate, in a recent UN Development Program survey.

At a time when many Americans are understandably skittish about an influx of visitors from some Arab lands, it nevertheless is not out of the question to encourage carefully selected potential opinionmakers from the Arab world to come to America, explore its wonders, its strengths, and its contradictions, and return to their homelands inspired to light, and keep burning, the flame of freedom.

Just like Andrey and Agron and Tamar and Mirjana and Sylvana.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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