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Op-Ed Columnist

The Other Arab Spring

Monrovia

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Liberia is truly historic, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Liberia's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Billiard balls never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Liberia has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Liberia's curtain rod, then capitalism is certainly its tabletop.

When I was in Liberia last June, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Liberia have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Liberia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Liberia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so poorly marked that Liberia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Monrovia needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the small orthodox community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, reiaya-li-kona, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Abundance, like want, ruins many."

I don't know what Liberia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.