BUT WAIT. The anniversary of September 11 reminds me that, before I come up with a gloomy word to conclude my sentence, it might be useful to recall the Middle Eastern landscape of ten years ago. It was not a spectacle of hope. The whole region seemed to be veering in terrorist directions, with battles almost everywhere going on between Islamists of different stripes and mukhabarat regimes, likewise of different stripes, ranging from the bad to the ghastly. And ten years later? Dismal still, in a kaleidoscopically different pattern. Anyone can think of doomsday possibilities—an Iranian order to Hamas and Hezbollah to launch a regional war, and so on. Still, two new elements, which you could not have found ten years ago, figure nowadays on the landscape. Here and there around the region you can see democratic institutions, shaky as a leaf—threatened by terrorists and Islamist militias in Iraq, trampled underfoot by an Islamist militia in Lebanon, still merely a project for the future in Tunisia, and feebler yet in Egypt, given that, if the Egyptian elections go ahead, they will probably bring the wrong people to power. Democratic institutions nonetheless amount to a new element. And something else: the ineradicable fact that liberals, relatively isolated and weak as they are, have made a mass appearance on the public stage, and the liberals left a good impression on the rest of society, and they even demonstrated the ability, for a moment, to shape events, and their day may not be over yet. Do these new elements add up to nothing? If you are philosophically a hard-core materialist and you tally up the measurable facts of power and wealth, they add up to nothing. But if you consider that ideas sometimes have an autonomous force of their own, and that liberal ideas are more likely to flourish in an atmosphere of freedom, these two new and feeble elements look like—well, a beginning.
more from Paul Berman at TNR here.