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Rebuilding Iraq


Turning to thoughts of winning the peace

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 04/09/2003

Day by day, war in Iraq is hard and bloody. But the aftermath can be just as hard in its own way. Many Americans are trying to see beyond the images of smoke, flame, and death to the landscape once the shooting stops. This week's magazine digest focuses on what happens when the war is over -- in Iraq, the Middle East as a whole, and the United States.

Business Week's April 14 issue has a useful section, "War and the Economy: The Outlook," with at least two pieces worth reading. An unsigned survey cites the war's possible bright and dark effects on the economy. Bright: Arms spending will prove a boon, making it "unlikely that the US will sink into a double-dip recession." Dark: Ongoing diplomatic squabbles may hinder global trade liberalization -- a hallmark of 1990s prosperity -- and international investment in the United States.

Equally worrisome, the magazine says, is that suspicion of foreigners may cut the flow of educated people from abroad. Economic growth "depends on globalization and innovation, both of which could be dampened by war and a potentially difficult aftermath."

Complicating the occupation's postwar plans, writes Stanley Reed, BW's Middle East correspondent, is that "to outsiders, Iraq is for all intents and purposes a black hole." Though the country is often characterized as a promising, modern society but for the Ba'athist tyranny, Reed writes, "Iraqi society and politics are far less well-mapped than those of other Arab countries."

Writing in April's Commentary, Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London, seems to be fairly optimistic that democracy can be grafted onto the Middle Eastern trunk, starting with Iraq, "provided that the root causes of the lack of democracy . . . are correctly identified and boldly addressed." But there's the rub.

Karsh says that old-fashioned colonialism would never be accepted in the modern Middle East. But it's not obvious that the radical medicine he prescribes for Iraq is much different: "a comprehensive purge of the existing political elites and the reeducation of the entire populace."

Karsh allows that "this is certain to be a difficult process, one requiring an extensive American military presence (and, no doubt, occasional military operations) over a protracted period . . . as well as a sustained commitment of financial, administrative, and political aid." Anything less, he writes, "is an assured recipe for disaster."

National Journal for March 29 offers a who's who of likely American occupation bosses by Sydney J. Greenberg Jr., Corine Hegland, and John Maggs. At the top of the "Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance" is retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner.

The possible supporting cast is less well known, and the Journal provides detailed profiles of front-runners for senior staff jobs, including Barbara Bodine, former ambassador to Yemen; George Ward, a former diplomat with experience in Kosovo; Michael Mobbs, former arms negotiator in the Reagan administration with close links to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith; and Lieutenant General John Abizaid, deputy commander to General Tommy Franks, with experience in Lebanon, Grenada, and Bosnia.

In addition to its horrors, war interferes with the work of scholars. Citing "numerous academics and organizations that support overseas work, "Richard Monastersky writes in the April 4 Chronicle of Higher Education that the war is having a "chilling effect on American research in the Middle East and North Africa."

Regional hostility to US policy, Monastersky writes, and general fear for scholars' safety, have caused the shutdown of various study projects in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, and Egypt. "This war is highly unpopular," says McGuire Gibson, an archeologist at the University of Chicago who has canceled research plans in Syria. "I've never seen the Middle East as tense as it is."

While all eyes are on Iraq, former CIA spook Robert Baer ("The Fall of the House of Saud") writes in May's Atlantic Monthly that regime change is in the offing for Saudi Arabia, with catastrophic results for the United States. Baer's account of the internal decay of a regime with which the United States is intimately linked -- politically and economically -- is disturbing.

Saudi per capita income has declined from $28,600 to $6,800 in the past 20 years, Baer writes, while the birthrate is one of the world's highest. Half of the population is younger than 18.

The United States is deeply dependent on Saudi oil, says Baer, and if it were cut off by terrorism or revolution, the effect on the economy of the United States would be "devastating." He says corruption is rampant. Meanwhile, Baer adds, "Popular preachers all over Saudi Arabia call openly for a jihad against the West . . . in terms as vitriolic as anything heard in Iran at the height of the Islamic revolution there."

If preemptive action against overseas threats are the order of the age, what do we do about this one? Baer offers no answers. But it doesn't sound like a job for the 101st Airborne.

David Mehegan can be reached at

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