The Lesson of Iraq

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

If we regard our essential aim in Iraq to have been the preservation of the status quo, as our government statements suggest, then we have lost utterly and completely. But surely we can recognize that this was not in itself an aim, but rather a tactical means toward a larger aim. The Iraqi government under Nuri was no more akin to our political ideals than any other dictatorship. Our reasons for identifying ourselves with it were three: it existed, it was prepared to agree to join our side in the Cold War, and it was able to assure the flow of oil. Other governments could conceivably do the latter as well or better (indeed, the flow of oil has increased since the fall of Nuri's government); the new government is at least as akin to us ideologically and seems to be a movement which might accomplish many of the sorts of reforms we would advocate; and the new government is not founded on a single, aging personality but is representative of a whole generation of those we may rightly regard as our intellectual foster children.

If we accept these conclusions and act accordingly, we could gain from the Iraqi revolt; if, on the contrary, we continue to treat the new regime with hostility, giving color to reports that we would like to overturn it, we will find ourselves opposed by more able adversaries using our own intellectual weapons against us. And we must face up to the fact that even if we had sent in our Marines, or if King Hussein's Arab Legion had invaded and conquered Iraq, we would have been forced to come to terms with Iraq's present rulers, for they are not just individuals but representatives of a new generation and a new class.

Youth is perhaps the most significant feature of the new government. The new minister of development is only twenty-six; his director general, one of the few army officers in the new government, is about thirty; the secretary who holds the key administrative position is twenty-eight; and the director general of the petroleum industry is thirty-two. Not less striking is the extent of Western education. One minister is a graduate of the London School of Economics, another of Columbia, another of Sandhurst. The secretary of the Development Board finished his D.Phil. at Oxford last year and now, having published a chapter of his thesis under the title "Economic Causes of the Iraqi Revolution," must hold some sort of international record in speed of publication and sales of a thesis. The director general of petroleum is a graduate of both Robert College in Istanbul and Georgia Tech. And even those who did not study in Western universities studied from the West, for the colleges in Baghdad are patterned on our institutions, even use our textbooks, and their staffs impart what they learned firsthand in Europe and America.

In addition to youth and Western educations, the new officials are notable for the determination and honesty they bring to their new jobs. They are determined to end the causes of inferiority and backwardness they had so keenly experienced under the old regime. They are stunned by the corruption they have already uncovered— and they emphasize, they are new at their jobs. For example, former officials had put their household servants on government payrolls. This has turned up so much surplus personnel that the new officials are at a loss to know how to dispose of it. The Broadcasting Station, "where the journalists used to be paid off," as the new director put it, had according to its books £250,000 in the safe, but the safe when opened was found to contain only £50,000. And from the Development Board, where the big money was, one can expect some serious scandals. In one case, some $20 million was appropriated for airport construction; no airports were built, but over half of the funds are missing. This sort of corruption, in the belief of the new officials, is responsible for much of the backwardness and inferiority of the country. This they are determined to change.

Above all, we need to know what the native critics think. It is lamentable that we do not. We are not helped in getting this sort of information by the fact that almost half of our diplomatic corps have no useful command of a foreign language. More than half of our foreign service officers are unable to converse in any of the languages of Asia or Africa. Among our journalists the percentage is even lower. We cannot really expect native critics, especially those in the semi-suppressed oppositions of such countries as Jordan, to provide us with their plans, yet we make little effort to meet with the opposition. In fact, it is an open secret that we do not allow our foreign service officers the freedom to ferret out this sort of information. Almost none of the new officials of the Iraqi government, even those of considerable reputation before the revolt, know American officials; Kamil Chadderchi, editor of the influential newspaper Sada el-Ahali and head of the Populist Party for many years, has yet to meet an American official, and he is now the man considered by some to be a likely candidate for President of Iraq should Iraq not federate with the UAR. Equally important, many of our foreign service officers sincerely believe that their dispatches have proved unwelcome to those who frame our policies. Why jeopardize their careers by producing what might be construed as a critique of our policy?

Where governments have popular support, even if their mandate is not given according to our electoral means, we can advantageously consider aid programs. The more these approach commercial transactions, the more acceptable they will be and the more they are likely to accomplish the aims for which they are intended. Massive airlifts of arms do not, of course, fall into this category; development projects do, and these—if made through the World Bank, the United Nations, or even directly by us in a proper political atmosphere—will be welcome.

What, in effect, do we want from the Middle East? Any answer must be tentative and subject to revision periodically. At the present, the answer seems to me to be sufficient peace to prevent a world war and a sufficient flow of oil to maintain the European economy. The first is the common interest of most Arabs, who are in earnest when they insist on "positive neutralism." Of the second, two points must be made: on the one hand, Europe now depends for 80 per cent of her oil on the Middle East, but she could be supplied, admittedly at greater cost, from other sources. On the other hand, the sale of oil is the major source of revenue for many of the Arab countries and is the only hope for those who plan, as does the new generation of nationalists, large-scale development programs—and the only customer for all of the Middle Eastern oil is Europe. Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs.

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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