February 27, 2005
The Tipping Points
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
he other night on ABC's "Nightline," the host, Ted Koppel, posed an intriguing question to Malcolm Gladwell, the social scientist who wrote the path-breaking book "The Tipping Point," which is about how changes in behavior or perception can reach a critical mass and then suddenly create a whole new reality. Mr. Koppel asked: Can you know you are in the middle of a tipping point, or is it only something you can see in retrospect?
Mr. Gladwell responded that "the most important thing in trying to analyze whether something is at the verge of a tipping point, is whether it - an event - causes people to reframe an issue. ...A dumb example is the Atkins's diet, which reframes dieting from thinking about it in terms of avoiding calories and fat to thinking about it as avoiding carbohydrates, which really changes the way people perceive dieting."
Mr. Koppel was raising the question because he wanted to explore whether the Iraqi elections marked a tipping point in history. I was on the same show, and in mulling over this question more I think that what's so interesting about the Middle East today is that we're actually witnessing three tipping points at once.
Thanks to eight million Iraqis defying "you vote, you die" terrorist threats, Iraq has been reframed from a story about Iraqi "insurgents" trying to liberate their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi "stooges" to a story of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with U.S. help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-fascists and jihadists.
In Lebanon, the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Syria is widely suspected of having had a hand in, has reframed that drama. A month ago, Lebanon was the story of a tiny Christian minority trying to resist the Syrian occupation, which had the tacit support of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and a cadre of Lebanese politicians who had sold their souls to Damascus. After the Hariri murder, Lebanese just snapped. Lebanon became the story of a broad majority of Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druse no longer willing to remain silent, but instead telling the Syrians, and their Lebanese puppet president, to "go home." Lebanon went from a country where few dared whisper "When will Syria leave?" to a country where nearly everyone was shouting it, and Syria was having to answer.
The Israel-Palestine drama has gone from how Ariel Sharon will use any means possible to sustain Israel's hold on Gaza, which he once said was indispensable for the security of the Jewish state, to being about how Mr. Sharon will use any means possible to evacuate Gaza - with its huge Palestinian population - which he now says is necessary for saving Israel as a Jewish state. The issue for the Palestinians is no longer about how they resist the Israeli occupation in Gaza, but whether they build a decent mini-state there - a Dubai on the Mediterranean. Because if they do, it will fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.
While all three of these situations would constitute tipping points by Mr. Gladwell's definition, I would feel a lot better about all three if I thought that they were irreversible - and couldn't tip back the wrong way.
For Iraq to be tipped in the right direction, it was necessary to have the election we did, but that was not sufficient. The sufficient thing is that a stable, decent Iraqi government emerge that can also quell the Sunni insurgency. That will depend in part on America's willingness to stay the course in Iraq. It will depend in part on the Shiite majority's willingness to share power with the Sunnis - particularly one of the crucial cabinet portfolios of defense, intelligence or interior - and not go on a de-Baathification rampage. And it will depend in part on the Sunni Arab leaders finally supporting the Iraqi majority.
For Lebanon to liberate itself from Syria, the Lebanese opposition groups will have to find a way to translate their aspirations into a withdrawal deal with Damascus. The Syrians will not be pushed out. And for Israelis and Palestinians to really tip toward peace, the moderates on both sides are really going to have to help each other succeed.
Indeed, in the Middle East playground - as Friday's suicide bomb in Israel reminds us - tipping points are sometimes more like teeter-totters: one moment you're riding high and the next minute you're slammed to the ground. Nevertheless, what's happened in the last four weeks is not just important, it's remarkable. And if we can keep all three tipping points tipped, it will be incredible.