Iraq Could Help Stabilize the Middle East

In the new year, hope springs eternal: while Iraq seems a looming disaster, there is at least the potential that US efforts there could help stabilize the Middle East. The key is to apply lessons learned in the reconstruction of Japan. All eyes are on Iraq’s upcoming elections as the test case for America’s plan to bring to democracy to the Middle East. But elections alone do not build stable democracies. The US is failing to learn from history – and missing an opportunity to put the stability of the Middle East on a firmer foundation. In politics, it always matters who has the money, and in the Middle East, the wrong people have it. For decades the region’s political agenda has been set by oil-rich princes, tithe-rich ayatollahs, and aid-rich generals – to the detriment of both political openness and economic development. It is not easy for outsiders to change this kind of politics, but it is possible. Consider the lessons learned in Japan. Recent books by Aaron Forsberg and Sayuri Shimizu have shown that it was not just Japanese industriousness and ingenuity that made post-war Japan such a success. It was the unusual form of US aid. In Japan, as in Iraq, the early days were dark and difficult. Japan was economically devastated, politically authoritarian, and hopelessly exotic to its American occupiers. Two years into the occupation, Japan’s economy was stagnant and inflation was rising. But then the Americans made an abrupt change of strategy. In 1948, National Security Council policy statement NSC 13/2 abandoned attempts to reform Japan’s politics and economy along US lines and made...

The Long Shadow of Iraq’s Future

Experts frequently point to Iraq’s past – colonial history, Saddam’s brutality, ethnic rivalries – to explain the current violence. But evidence from similar regimes indicates the causes may lie not in the echoes of the past, but in the long shadow cast by Iraq’s uncertain future. “It is hard to fight and kill other people” – so said an Iraqi insurgent, struggling to explain to The Nation’s Christian Parenti why he had hung up his guns. Not to mention, US troops have overwhelmingly superior training, technology and firepower. Against this, planting roadside bombs is one thing, but attempting to take and hold towns – as Sunni and Shia militias have done in recent weeks – is quite another. For the Americans, it is frightening. It looks like a widening rebellion. But for the Iraqis, it is suicidal, and the militiamen have perished in the hundreds. So why do it? No doubt many are motivated by religious zeal or rage at US troops. But it is no coincidence that the most violent groups have been those which expect to be excluded from power after the June 30th handover. The Sunnis in Fallujah have done the math and realize democracy will mean rule by the Shias. And rebellious Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia seized Najaf, has been excluded from the political process in favor of more moderate figures. This matters because in country after country, regardless of history, culture or geography, the presence of natural resource wealth has long fostered violence by politically excluded groups. The circumstances are varied, of course. The World Bank, in a famous study, tracked 161...