"Once We were Ruled by a Dictator; Now We are Ruled by Clowns"

Pomona, CA / New York City

Two new reports on economics (“Arab World Competitiveness Report 2005”) and politics (“Towards Freedom in the Arab World,” launched in Amman, Jordan on April 5, 2005) in the Arab states dramatized what all astute observers already knew: the Arab region is a mess and US policies have exacerbated the situation.

“The Arab world is facing a population time bomb and urgently needs to reform governments, education systems and cultural rules that keep women out of the workforce” wrote Al Jazeera (April 2), summing up the findings of the “Arab World Competitiveness Report 2005,” issued by the World Economic Forum at an April 2, 2005 conference in Doha, Qatar.

The “Competitiveness Report” acknowledged the viability of oil-rich mini states like Qatar, but over the next decade other Arab nations had “to create 80 million jobs” to address the growing pool of future jobseekers. Mustafa Nabil, chief World Bank economist for the Middle East, cited Arab leaders’ “resistance to change” as one impediment to instituting wide-reaching reforms.

The 2004 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), “Towards Freedom in the Arab World,” also echoed Nabil’s sentiments on the “authoritarian nature” of Arab leaders but drew Washington’s ire by censuring the US role in both Iraq and Israel-Palestine.

Washington’s ensuing displeasure held up the report’s original October 2004 release date and prompted UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown’s subsequent disclaimer that “In the case of this year’s reportsome of the views expressed by the authors are not shared by the UNDP or the UN” (Foreword, “Towards Freedom in the Arab World”).

Lead author Nader Fergany claimed that the Bush administration responded to the critical language by threatening to slash some of its $100 million contribution to the UNDP (December 23, 2004 Courier-Mail). The UNDP denied any such threat. But the story leaked to the media and Arab intellectuals understood Washington’s “free speech lesson.”

Bush had already made clear his disdain for the UN by invading Iraq in 2003, virtually destroying the legitimacy of the Security Council, which had refused to authorize military action. He poked the UN in its eye again by nominating Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton as Washington’s UN representative.

“There’s no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton had declared at the 1994 Global Structures Convocation in New York, adding, “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Bush circles rely on the US public to forget that in 1945 US money and staff created this world body.

The Bushies, however, don’t hesitate to use UN documents that coincide with their policies. They praised the 2002 and 2003 Arab Human Development Reports, which emphasized the absence of freedom in Arab states, points White House officials used to back their own “democratic” plans to remake the Middle East

But the authors of the 2004 AHDR violated taboos by criticizing Israel, which “has continued its violations of individual and collective freedoms of Palestinians” (p. 6), and Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq, where “the Iraqi people have emerged from the grip of a despotic regimeonly to fall under a foreign occupation that increased human suffering” (pg. 7). Both policies have “adversely influenced Arab human development” (p. 6), the authors concluded.

Such judgments by leading independent Arab scholars who drafted the latest report reflect deep pessimism. Absence of freedom pervades the region, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they noted.
The 2004 AHDR also focuses on Washington’s hypocrisy in including its allies like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, as “democratic.” These governments would not pass rudimentary democratic tests, argued the authors.

Bush backers, however, deny reality on several fronts. First, the tyrannical regimes that they call allies will not redistribute power or wealth. Second, and more damaging to Bush’s freedom indicator, elections, is that the Arabs interviewed by the AHDR team want “liberation from foreign occupation and the freedoms of opinion, expression and movement” (pg. 97). Such facts don’t bother “democracy pushers.”

“We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer. “It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and televised images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free election”(March 4, 2005, Washington Post).
Awada Dakil, an Iraqi Shia, offers a stark contrast to Krauthammer’s frothy enthusiasm. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “The only difference is that we were once ruled by a dictator and now we are ruled by clowns” (Telegraph, March 30, 2005).

Dakil more accurately measures the pulse on the Arab streets, where average unemployment hovers around 15 percent (Al Jazeera, “Experts: Arab Economies Lag Behind,” April 3, 2005). “32 million people suffer from malnutrition,” noted the latest AHDR, after studying 15 Arab countries (pg. 10). Daily devastation sweeps Iraq and Afghanistan, while Lebanon faces possible civil war, ignited by the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Bush’s religious dogma, however, negates reasonable discussion about facts in the region. Shortly after US troops invaded Iraq, then Commerce Secretary Don Evans said that “Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time” (Judy Keen, USA Today April 2, 2003).

On March 2, 2005, the President told an audience at Maryland’s Anne Arundel Community College: “I look forward to continuing to work with friends and allies to advance freedom – not America’s freedom, but universal freedom, freedom granted by a Higher Being” (March 5, 2005, Arab News). “The Seed of Chucky in the White House,” as one Arab-American dubbed him, shows no interest in the underlying issues of the region.

Since 9/11, reports Al Jazeera (April 2, 2005), wealthy Arab investors have withdrawn their US investments and have instead poured money into regional real estate. This activity creates temporary construction jobs but hardly fuels an export-based economy or attracts large scale foreign capital. Indeed, real economic reformers would have to circumvent the current over-bloated bureaucracies, which exist without accountability, transparency or the rule of law and which make institutionalizing long-range reforms impossible.

Nonetheless, President Bush’s simplistic reform formula calls for “privatization” to solve the Middle East’s economic woes, which sounds like a joke in a region where vast oil profits have not trickled down to the pockets of the average citizen. For much of the Arab world, privatization has really meant theft of public property.

Additionally, Bush links addressing Middle Eastern poverty with free trade. “Across the globe, free markets and trade have helped defeat poverty, and taught men and women the habits of liberty,” he declared. “So I propose the establishment of a U.S.-Middle East free trade area within a decade, to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region” (May 9, 2003).

More enlightened 21st Century imperialists might offer the Middle East a born again version of the Marshall Plan combined with a revitalized Alliance for Progress, a massive investment plan for industry and infrastructure along with education reforms to bring literacy and socioeconomic development to the Arab masses ­ the groundwork for democracy. The “Competitiveness Report” concludes that the Arab world needs such a boost, not empty slogans like “democracy,” which translates in Iraq and Afghanistan as an exclusive group of US approved candidates running in US organized elections.

Conversely, the President, who maintains a supermodel’s appetite for reading, has no recognition of history that most Arabs possess. In the mosques and streets, the past intersects the present as a dynamic anchor of daily life. Ancient religious sites and long-standing traditions co-exist with the ubiquitous cell phones and gas-guzzling vehicles. In Ma’aloula, near Damascus, people still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

Ultimately, Arabs have solid reasons to suspect the West’s renewed democracy rap. France and England colonized and looted the region after World War I. Indeed, Iraqis recall that when they rebelled against British occupation in the early 1920s, London dropped poison gas on them. Syrian memory retains France’s ruthless suppression of their resistance to occupation in 1925-27 and again in 1945. Washington’s fervent defense of the thirty-eight year old Israeli occupation of Palestine also informs them of its one-sided interpretation of “democracy.”

When brilliant scholars write reports on critical regions, governments should use them as primary intelligence documents from which to derive sound policies. But Bush has drawn “vision” exclusively from sycophants and opportunists who agree with his ethereal assumptions. Instead of relying on yes men and dissemblers, CIA analysts would benefit from reading poets.

Like mussels we sit in cafés,
one hunts for a business venture
one for another billion
a fourth wife
breasts polished by civilization.
One stalks London for a lofty mansion
one traffics in arms
one seeks revenge in nightclubs
one plots for a throne, a private army,
a princedom.
Ah generation of betrayal,
of surrogate, indecent men,
generation of leftovers, we’ll be swept away-
never mind the slow pace of history-
by children bearing rocks.

–Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), “Children Bearing Rocks”

Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and directs digital studies at Cal Poly Pomona University’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.

Farrah Hassen was the Associate Producer of the film, “SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE,” with Landau. She worked for the United Nations Development Program office in Syria during the Fall 2004. She can be reached at: FHdsn@aol.com