Saturday, September 20, 2003


Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the media have engaged in non-stop discussions of what it will take to create civil society, and begin to build democracy, in Iraq. Much of this dialogue has been about ‘the Arab Street’, i.e., ordinary working people, and their hatred for the United States. But I submit that the problem is far deeper than ‘the Arab Street’, and that we have seriously under-estimated the challenges we face.

I offer my experiences in Egypt – considered by many to be one of the more moderate Arab states -- as a proxy for Iraq. For several years, not long ago, I managed one of the many programs in Egypt sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). I was the only American in the program, my staff being entirely Egyptian. All were young university graduates, many with Master’s Degrees from the American University in Cairo – one of the most prestigious institutions in the Middle East. Some had done their university work in the US. All had traveled extensively outside the region, principally to the US and Europe. All were from ‘good’ upper middle class families. They had no leanings whatever toward Islamic Fundamentalism. They were children of privilege. The ‘Arab Street’ they were not.

On one sunny Cairo afternoon, sitting on our 19th floor balcony outside our office overlooking the Nile, I stumbled into a discussion about ‘politics’ with two or three of my most talented senior staff people. Here are some of the opinions they expressed during that conversation:

· The US doesn’t really care about the needs of developing nations. American foreign assistance is merely a tool to further our foreign policy.
· All US foreign policy decisions vis a vis the Middle East are guided by the interests of Israel and the strength of the Jewish lobby in Washington.
· Despite the power of the Jewish lobby, the Christian right hates Muslims and is a major influence on policy makers.
· The Holocaust never happened.
· It happened, but it wasn’t six million killed – there weren’t that many Jews in all of Europe – it was only a million or so.
· The US media, banking system, Congress, labor unions, etc. are all ‘controlled’ by Jews or by Jewish campaign contributions, or both.
· There is no difference between Jews and Israelis, regardless of their location. All Jews are homogenous.
· The US justice system and civil rights are over-rated, available to rich whites only, certainly not to Muslims.
· The US doesn’t really care about Egyptians. The approximately $2 billion in US annual aid to Egypt is ‘payback time’ for Egypt recognizing and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
· Israel has more weapons of mass destruction than all the other Middle Eastern states combined, and isn’t a democracy anyway.

Like all the most dangerous lies, some of the above had at least a little germ of truth. But where did these notions come from? Principally, they came from the parents of these young people, from many of their religious leaders, from their teachers and their textbooks, and from a largely state-controlled media putting out a daily diet of misinformation, disinformation, half-truths and vitriol – much of it written by some of the most respected ‘scholars’ in the region. So they literally absorbed these attitudes from their mothers’ milk, and their beliefs were reinforced on a daily basis.

And so it is in Iraq. The Iraqis, like the Egyptians and citizens of most other Middle East nations, will happily accept our aid dollars, tell us what they think we want to hear, and go on believing what they have always believed.

Our government claims to be aware of all this. But ‘nation-building’ is a political dirty word in America because it implies a very long-term commitment of resources, and partners prepared to make similar commitments. In the run-up to the 2004 elections, it is unlikely that Washington will be in the mood for long-term commitments overseas. And if such commitments are made, they will be at the expense of other developing nations just as needy. As for partners (with checkbooks) today we find ourselves just a tad short, and we continue to ignore those – the UN, for example – who might help.

Furthermore, the US is not very good at nation-building. We consistently under-estimate the enormity of the task and the time it will take to succeed (witness Kuwait and Afghanistan). Our government will send the most talented experts from the best consulting firms to deliver our aid programs, and our visionary Congress will expect ‘success’ in perhaps three, four or five years.

The international community cannot help Iraq to become a democracy without the conceptual underpinnings necessary to build democratic institutions. Iraqis, and most other Middle Eastern peoples, have no experience with democratic concepts, structures or institutions. For example, they will fail to comprehend – and most (though not all) will resist – such ideas as separation of church and state, the need for an independent judiciary, a system of checks and balances, and freedom of expression. This should come as no surprise: their governments never expected anything from them save blind loyalty and supine compliance!

Yet here we are. It is apparent that we launched a military operation in Iraq without a viable plan for winning the peace. We can’t do that with ‘smart’ bombs; nation-building is not about technology. Most of those with real experience in nation-building believe that it is far more about changing mass media content; changing the educational system and the attitudes of those who write its textbooks and teach its children; and gaining the understanding and support of community and religious leaders.

The White House and the Departments of State and Defense have access to the world’s deepest experience and finest minds on this subject – people who know the region and its attitudes, customs and mores, speak fluent Arabic, and have a genuine appreciation of the components of nation-building. So where are they? And is anyone listening?

Politicians tend to have time horizons even shorter than quarter-by-quarter CEOs. They also have a penchant for self-congratulation. So while they and most of our nation rightly celebrate our ‘liberation’ of Iraq, we continue to be in serious denial about what lies ahead, right now. Winning the peace does not require politicians who are incessantly running for reelection. Nation-building requires statesmen (and women). It requires people with the vision to acknowledge that the kind of change we wish to bring about in Iraq will take a generation at the least. And, at the end of the day, those making and sustaining those changes will have to be Iraqis.

Anyone in Washington or Baghdad spring to mind with the qualifications to take on that job?

Bill Fisher
May 17, 2003