After Saddam ... Now What?

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Mr. Pollack served on the staff of the National Security Council as Director for Persian Gulf Affairs (1999-2001) and Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs (1995-96). He was also the CIA's Iraq-Iran military analyst (1988-95) and is now Director of Research for the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Brookings Institution.

The Middle East is in a great deal of difficulty right now, after Saddam Hussein and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not only do we have a mess in Iraq to fix, but there is an even bigger mess out there in the larger Middle East. We're going to need to deal with that mess, too, if we are going to be able to defend our interests and our own security from the threats we now face in the region.

The Arab states are broken. They are absolutely stagnant, politically, economically, and socially. And their people know it. Arabs are deeply angry and frustrated with the situation they find themselves in because of the stagnation of the Arab world. We hear about how angry the "Arab street"
is, but I don't think most people realize what is really wrong in the Arab world.


It all starts with education. Arab educational systems are by and large very poor. The vast majority of Arab schools don't teach anything useful to their students. They see knowledge as a set body of facts that students are supposed to memorize and simply regurgitate on set tests. And it's always the same, there's no effort to bring out the ingenuity, the creativity, of students.

These schools don't produce students who have useful job skills. Most of the students specialize in humanities, many of them aspire to be lawyers and Islamic scholars: two thirds of all of the Ph.D.s issued in Saudi Arabia every year are in Islamic studies. The scientists, engineers, and computer programmers come to the U.S. because they can't get a decent education in those sciences at home. So there's a brain drain. The best and brightest leave their countries, generally, and come here., where they contribute to our economy and progress.

As a result, you have an enormous group of people in Egypt, for instance, crop after crop of young, smart, educated middle-class students coming out of Egyptian universities who have degrees that have taught them nothing useful. No one will hire them. You can imagine what it does to a bright young person who believes that he should be part of that country's elite when he can't even get a job because no one has taught him anything useful.

It used to be the case that the Egyptian bureaucracy would scoop all these young people up. It's one of the reasons you
have such bloated bureaucracies in the Arab world,
particularly in Egypt. But the demographics have gotten so bad that even the massive Egyptian bureaucracy can no longer soak up these enormous pools of smart, ambitious young people.


The legal system in all the Arab countries is a disaster, which is one reason so few American companies invest there, except for the oil firms. In many of these countries rule of law is meaningless. The law is entirely arbitrary. Investment laws are set up to siphon money away from multinationals and to the central government. No one can count on what the central government is going to decide from one moment to the next.

For example, there are nearly 500 princes in the Saudi royal family, all of whom believe that they are entitled to live like princes. Even the Saudi royal family can't accommodate all of them, so the princes use their positions of power to work around the legal system to make additional money. They'll push a government contract to a certain place, or they'll find out early where the government has decided to build a school, a road, a bridge. Because Saudi Arabia is a rather new country and was made up originally of a lot of semi-literate Bedouins or recently settled townspeople, the deed system in Saudi Arabia isn't terrific. The princes find out where a new project is going to be built and have a deed for the land drawn up. When the rightful owner comes forward and takes the matter to court, the prince intercedes to get the judge to rule in his favor.


All of these different problems contribute to larger economic problems. The economies of the Arab states are more or less broken. They tend to fall into two categories. For many years the oil states lived high off the hog. Even to this day Kuwaitis and UAE are doing well, the Bahrainis and Omanis are getting by, but the Saudis are having a real problem because in the 1960s-70s, when they had massive oil revenues, they created a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But the decrease in global oil prices, coupled with a massive rise in Saudi population, has reversed its affluence. Now, the Saudis are running deficits. They can no longer live or support their people the way they once did. But after 40 years of no one's having to work, there is almost no work ethic left in Saudi Arabia.

The oil states are all decrepit command economies. In the 1950s and '60s, they put in place a form of socialism, but they never ran it as well as the Soviets did. The Arab states put it in place not because they necessarily thought socialism was great, but because these kind of command economies put all the economic resources of the state tightly into the hands of the autocrats. It was another way for them to control their societies. Today, they're paying for it. None of them have industries that produce anything that anyone wants to buy.

So some of the Gulf oil states are still doing reasonably well, but the big state that matters, Saudi Arabia, is doing very poorly. And for the rest of the Arab world, there really isn't an economy to speak of. There isn't any kind of a cash crop like oil that they can use to subsidize these massive populations.

And of course all of this comes home to roost in the political situation because the people of the region are deeply frustrated. They understand that the rest of the world has taken off with globalization, even places like East Asia, which forty or fifty years ago was poor and worse off than they were. How did East Asia go from being behind them to being so far ahead of them? In every other part of the world, even in Africa, they see states that seem to be doing better than them. And they're deeply angry and frustrated. They can't find jobs, they can't make a living, and they've got no political recourse. Their governments aren't interested in their problems. The governments just feed them a steady diet of anti-Semitism and anti- Americanism, creating an intellectual class that blames its problems on us. The people are told that if they can't get a job, it's "because we have to stay mobilized to go to war against the Israelis." Or "it's because the Americans are manipulating our economy."

The only alternative out there is even worse: the Islamists. The Islamists at least stand up, and because they live in the mosque, the states have been very wary of going after them. The Islamists are willing to challenge the government. They tell the people "We know how bad your lives are. We know how unhappy you are. We have the answer: sharia. We need to go back to the 12th century and recreate the Islamic paradise that existed before the Mongols sacked Baghdad."


There's another important development going on out there, and that's what's happening in Iraq, Iraq really matters, for a variety of reasons.

First, if we get Iraq wrong and create a mess there, we will create chaos in the entire region. Iraq is a very important country. We've learned that if you allow a country to slide into chaos, to become a failed state, that chaos never stays within its borders. Remember Lebanon in the 1980s? The chaos there destabilized Syria and Israel. Many of the problems Israel has today stem from its involvement in Lebanon, which it was basically drawn into because of the instability there. Look at Afghanistan and how it destabilized Pakistan and started to destabilize Iran and some of the Central Asian states. Or the Congo. The Congo is a massive pit in the middle of Africa. It is nothing but death and chaos, and it has destabilized every single country around it.

And Iraq is important in and of itself, because it is the source of the second largest proven oil reserves in the world and because of the countries it borders: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Jordan. If the chaos spreads to them, things could get very unpleasant. A lot of these states are tinderboxes right now. Saudi Arabia probably isn't going to blow up tomorrow, but I wouldn't make a bet as to whether it's still in its current state ten years from now, if it continues down the same road that it's been on for the last twenty years. And if it starts getting a push from chaos in Iraq, things could unravel there much faster.

In Jordan, there is the beloved King Abdullah. But King Abdullah does not sit easily on his throne. He presides over a population that's two thirds Palestinian, and those people are very unhappy with their lot in life. And they would like nothing better than to be able to control the levers of power inside Jordan. Add Syria, Turkey and Iran, and there aren't too many stable states neighboring Iraq.


But Iraq is also important because of this larger issue of the region. Right now, there have traditionally been only two visions out there in the Arab world. There's the vision offered by the state autocrats, which basically says "Our political system's fine. The only problem is the Americans and Israelis. If Washington would just fix the peace process, everything would be beautiful." The only voice of opposition with any strength is the Islamists, who offer their own vision of an alternative.

But in the last ten or fifteen years, another voice has been developing in the Middle East. It's still very small and weak, but it's the voice that we should all be supporting. That's a group of liberal democratic Arabs who have been standing up and saying "These two alternatives are both equally bankrupt. Our choice should not be Mubarak's Egypt or the Ayatollah's Iran. Why can't we do what 140, 150 other countries around the world have done and start to
democratize, open up our economies, and build a free-market economy and a democratic system? We can build a democratic system that is perfectly compatible with Islam and with traditional Arab values."

It's a small, still voice right now, and if we get Iraq wrong, that voice is going to die. Because right now, as far as the Arabs are concerned, what we're doing in Iraq is embarking on a grand social-science experiment to try to build a democratic free-market society in an Arab state. Iraq is a pretty good Arab state. The Arabs know that the Iraqi population is among the most secular, best educated, most progressive, and most industrious in the Arab world. The Arabs say, "If you want to try to build democracy somewhere, Iraq is probably a pretty good place to try it."

If democracy fails in Iraq, it won't matter how we explain why the effort failed. To the Arabs, all that will matter is "The U.S. tried to build democracy and free-market economics in Iraq, threw 130,000 troops and $100 billion at it, and failed." And all the autocrats and all the Islamic fundamentalists are going to say, "If the Americans couldn't do it in Iraq, then it can't work anywhere in the Arab world. So the only alternatives you have are us." That's a lot at stake.


To get Iraq right requires us to do some hard things. We'll have to bring in the international community in a way that we haven't been willing to do yet. Not just its troops, but the skills that we don't have. The last countries that we tried to build as democracies, really, were Germany and Japan (and Panama, of course, but that was a tiny and unique case). Over the last 15 years, though, the UN, and particularly the UN Development Program, has reached out to a whole group of people who have embarked on these enterprises in Cambodia, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.

Not all of these were successes, but these people were there doing it, and they learned and got better each time they did it. They were stunned when they weren't allowed to apply what they learned in Afghanistan. The same has been true in Iraq. We need to reach out to the UN and NGOs, who have the skills that we lack. They have Arabic speakers, they have people who understand how to go out into villages and teach people about democracy and organize them and build from the ground up, which we've found is the best way to do this.

We're also going to have to come to grips with our goals. We hear every day that this administration is deeply divided over what it wants in Iraq. One group believes in the idea of nation-building, looks at the things that were done in the 1980s and 1990s and says "We know how to do this. It's going to be hard, but it can be done if you do it the right way." Then another group says "Why bother? We got rid of the bad guy, if the place falls into chaos, who cares?" Still another group says "We've got our guy, his name is Ahmed Chalaby, we're going to put him in charge. He'll be an SOB, but he'll be our SOB."

These three groups fight over everything. Every decision about Iraq comes down to this question of what kind of an Iraq we want. This makes it impossible for the people out in the field to figure out what they're doing on a day-to-day basis. That's one of the reasons why Jerry Bremer has to keep coming back to Washington, to try to force them to sort this out. He's saying "I can do this. It'll be hard, it'll cost us, but I know how to do this if you will let me."
Until Washington sorts itself out and lets him do it, I don't think we're ever going to get there.

But the situation in Iraq is entirely salvageable. There is a lot of good raw material in Iraq. Since we've been there we've seen that there are a lot of positives. Our troops have done a magnificent job. They went into Iraq, took over the whole country, and basically after the fall of Baghdad for about six weeks they sat on their hands, hoping that somewhere there was a plan and someone who would tell them what to do. After six weeks, they figured out like the rest of us that there wasn't a plan. They rose to this and said "OK, we'll do it ourselves."

And that's what they've been doing. They've been out there making it up as they go: getting villages' water and power turned on, forming councils. There have been tremendous local successes all across Iraq, as both the soldiers and the Iraqis will tell you. But we're not building on these, because nobody in Baghdad or Washington has yet figured out what to do. If we can build on the positive developments, if we can get to a position where maybe five, ten or fifteen years down the road Iraq is a stable pluralist state, then you will start to see a lot of changes in the region.

It's not a matter of dominoes falling, it's something somewhat different. For the first time ever Arabs will be able to look at Iraq and see an Arab democracy. Often when we say democracy, Arabs hear Britney Spears, sex on TV, same-sex marriages and hip-hugger blue jeans. They know they don't want any of that. But once you get that first democracy formed in a region, it has a remarkable transformative effect. This is what the East Asian historians say about Japan. Fifteen, twenty years after the occupation of Japan was over, when there was a functional democracy in Japan, it changed a lot of perceptions throughout East Asia. For the first time East Asians could look at Japan and say "That's the kind of state that I could imagine living in."

Before Japan, East Asians thought about democracy the same way that Arabs do now. They thought of it as being an American or a European thing. Those were the only examples they had, and they knew they didn't want that. But then Japan came along and proved that you could build a democracy that was very different from a Western-style democracy. To me, Japan is more dissimilar from our form of democracy than Hosni Mubarak's Egypt is from our democracy. But it is a functional democracy that is consistent with Japan's values, traditions and history. And if we get it right in Iraq, for the first time there will be a democratic Arab state with a free-market economic system that will be consistent with Arab values, traditions and history.

And once that is out there, those small, still voices in the Arab world who are saying that there is an alternative will be tremendously reinforced. This is the challenge we face.

In his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, President Bush said a lot of what I just said. I hope he means it, though I'm a little skeptical at this point in time. I've heard this speech from his administration before. Richard Haass, then head of policy planning, gave it in 2001, Colin Powell gave it in 2002, and Condi Rice wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post this past summer saying the exact same thing.

After each one of these speeches, the administration did nothing. Arabs ask, "If you're really serious about democracy, how about telling your friend Hosni Mubarak 'You get $2.1 billion a year from us. Well, next year, unless you start making some democratic changes, you're going to get less. And if you do make those changes, you'll get more.'

And how about telling U.S. defense contractors, 'Next time you want to get the Saudis to buy $4 billion worth of planes that they won't be able to fly, you can't. Because we need the Saudis to be able to put that money into their educational system, not into another 60 F-15s that do nothing but sit and bake in the sun.'" Until the president is willing to make some hard diplomatic and economic choices and tell the American people "I'm going to cut your tax rebate because we need to increase our foreign aid budget because we've got a real problem out there in the Middle East," no one in the Middle East is going to take it seriously. This isn't all abstract. This is stuff that comes home to roost. These deeper economic and political problems are what motivate the terrorists.


We know a lot about terrorist recruiting. Hezbollah goes after the third and fourth and fifth sons of families in Lebanon. These are youth who have no prospects. The first son gets the land. The second son gets all the family's clout to get him some kind of job in the army or the bureaucracy. The third son has nothing: no education, no skills, no land; he probably can't get married as a result of all this. He is nothing but a burden on his family.

Hezbollah goes to those boys and says "We're going to give you a chance. You martyr yourself for us, and we will take care of your family forever. Forever we will be there helping them economically. This is your chance to do something for your family." And since there is nothing else for these kids, a lot of them do take Hezbollah up on their offer.

And we know a lot about how Al Qaeda recruits, too. It goes after the intellectuals, the sons of the middle class, the young men in Egypt who are smart, educated, well versed in Islamic studies, who believe that they are entitled to a decent job and a respectable life but can't get one because of the poverty of their education, because of the crippling corruption and poor legal systems in their societies. Al Qaeda goes after them and says "We know who's responsible.

It's the Americans, the Mubarak regime, the Saudi regime. We will help you take out your frustration on them. We have a channel for your rage. Help us and we will overturn this unjust system." The nineteen 9/11 hijackers weren't the poor downtrodden, these were the sons of the middle class of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And this is why the regions' problems are more than just abstractions. You talk about draining the swamp? This is what draining the swamp means.

Relatd Links

  • Jonathan Dresner, "It's 1868 in Arabia?"

  • This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute .