The Lesson of Iraq

"Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs"

Crash programs seldom result in a sound policy. Too often our State Department has waited until the United States was involved in a new crisis before it began to improvise a pact, a doctrine, or a show of force; too often we have reacted in the heat of emergency, under circumstances not of our own choosing.

The problems of the Middle East will be with us for the foreseeable future. They are primarily the responsibility of the peoples of the area, but they also affect us closely, for the Middle East provides 80 per cent of the oil required by the European economy, is crossed by the major trade routes between Asia-Africa and Europe, and could be the seedbed of a war. The question then is whether we can find in the steps leading up to the Iraqi coup d'état any clues to what lies ahead for Jordan and the Arabian peninsula.

The keystone of the Iraqi arch of power was Nuri as-Said. Observers had long realized that if he should be removed, the whole structure would crumble. Nuri ranked as one of the more able politicians in the Middle East, and perhaps his last great compliment came from the rebel leaders when they announced to their followers that the revolt would fail if Nuri were allowed to escape. But a man who is bitterly hated by a large proportion of his people is always in danger of assassination. Nuri was more than seventy years of age, in bad health, and would probably have been forced to retire soon. In case of his retirement, which Washington should have foreseen, upon whom or what were we planning to rely? Nuri built no party organization and had no follower of sufficient ability to succeed in command. The hatred directed toward his government, which was held in check by the fear he inspired, could not be controlled by any of his associates or followers. Finally, the sort of rule at which Nuri was so adept had come to be an anachronism in his own country.

Iraqi society has changed radically in the last decade under the stimulus of one of Nuri's own reforms, the investment of oil revenues by the Development Board, which made possible a better education for a whole generation of Iraqis. At the rate of about five hundred persons a year, the pick of the post-war generation of men and women have been sent to European and American universities to acquire technical skills and advanced degrees. Returning to Iraq with their new knowledge, they brought with them Western ideals and Western expectations. The Iraq to which they returned was also changing under the impact of other programs of the Development Board, but at a far slower rate than these people had changed. And their cumulative disillusionment with the conditions they encountered at home generated that acute and widespread sense of frustration which so often precedes a revolution.

Trotsky once coined a vivid expression as he studied the events of the Russian Revolution. In the rising prices of bread and the less sharply rising level of wages, when plotted as curves on a graph, Trotsky saw a pair of scissors closing on the government. In Iraq, one might have plotted two such curves showing the social insecurity level or the frustration gap. The more level of the two curves would represent the growing means of gratification—industrial production, increased land productivity, and a rise in wages—made possible by the capital outlays of the Development Board. The second curve, rising at a steep angle from the first, would represent the bursting new expectations from life, expectations which have resulted both from increased contact with the outside world and from the internal improvement at home. It is axiomatic that at certain levels of living standards, slight improvements give rise to greatly exaggerated expectations. These were the scissors of the Iraqi revolt. There was nothing unusual or obscure about them, for they followed a classic pattern analyzed by social scientists in many other comparable situations.

Political repression in Iraq had been relatively severe. Severe enough, that is, effectively to close to the opposition all peaceful means of change and to deprive the younger generation of any overt means of giving vent to its dissatisfactions. It was the emerging middle class which was grievously conscious of this oppression; these were the people who had been most exposed to Western life and thought and upon whose technical abilities, acquired during that exposure, the old regime depended. Thus, while the government depended upon the newly educated generation for all of its schemes of economic and social betterment and indeed for all of its technical functions, from the operation of the telephone company to the weaving of cloth, yet the government was immune to the political ideas of this new generation. Only one recent election was fairly free, and that resulted in a Parliament which Nuri dismissed after one day. Leaders of the opposition parties were frequently in prison or exile; their means of expression were severely limited, as their newspapers were confiscated or banned outright; and their supporters were under various restraints.

Student demonstrations, the traditional street forum of Middle Eastern nationalists, were suppressed by expulsion from schools, by jail sentences, or by bullets. Teachers were forced to report to the secret police on their students, and the reverse was probably also true. Graduates found their circumstances no freer. In a society of little industry, the government was master. Anyone with a higher education, especially in those fields in which Western learning counted most, was likely to have to work for the government or for a company in which the government itself or Nuri and the Regent were large stockholders. Political opposition was thus a bar to professional advancement. At all levels, the younger and better-educated people felt stifled under the minute observations of a paternalistic government. Recently discovered police records indicate that in the city of Baghdad alone nearly 20,000 agents for the secret police kept watch. When one takes into account the Iraqi literacy rate, this means that virtually every educated man had a police double.

Presented by

The author of What the Arabs Think and co-author of Backdrop to Tragedy, William R. Polk is a member of the center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. As a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation he lived for several years in the Middle East, and this article was written in an American interval before he returned to the area under discussion. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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