The Lesson of Iraq

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

Then-colonel Abdul Salam Arif addresses a crowd to explain the objectives of the new Iraqi government (Bettmann / Getty)

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.

And not only among civilians but in the military, too, discontent was strong. Like the civilians, many officers had studied abroad, and all had acquired more than the manual of arms from the British and American military missions. In the process of acquiring Western technical skills, they also acquired Western values and expectations. In addition to those desires felt by their civilian counterparts, they were also "haunted by the shame of the army's performance in the 1948 Palestine war, and they placed the blame squarely on the government. Secretly they formed a free officers movement. Of this the government was aware and showed it distrusted the army by purges, political promotions to safe sinecures, and by such obvious devices as keeping the troops short of ammunition. The marriage of suspicion and fear seldom begets loyalty, and it did not in Iraq.

Given this frustration, the obvious lack of trust, the need to rely upon a large secret political police force, the lack of organization and personnel to take the place of the aging premier, the collapse of the arch could not have been long in coming.

Now, turning from Iraq to Jordan, what do we find to reassure us? Is the Jordanian government more popular, better able to satisfy the growing expectations of its elite, and more self-reliant than was the Iraqi government of Nuri?

Whereas Iraq had the potential to satisfy at least some of the desires of its growing middle class, Jordan is both a poor country and a refugee country. As Aneurin Bevan accurately if unkindly said in the Parliamentary debates on the Middle East crisis of July, "Jordan is a kept country and King Hussein is a kept king." Just how true this is probably few Americans realize. Since 1954, the American government has given Jordan over $100 million, which is about $100 for each nonnomadic person in the country. From the end of the war until 1957, Britain gave Jordan (or Transjordan, as part of it was known in the earlier years) over £82 million, or the equivalent of $230 million. Since 1950, the United Nations has spent approximately $110 million in Jordan, sustaining and providing work for the Palestinian refugees settled there. And, when Jordan broke with Great Britain and fired General Glubb, the Arab states began contributing lesser amounts. Saudi Arabia, for example, gave $14 million in 1957. In the current year only one quarter of the Jordanian budget of nearly $100 million can be met from internal resources, and in default of funds expected from Iraq, Jordan has become an American ward.

For whatever long-range objectives our money is spent, its short-term effect is to shore up the government of King Hussein. Our wholesale support of the King necessarily brings to us whatever assets and liabilities he has in the public mind, for if we are willing to pay his bills he must surely stand for those things we wish to achieve in the Middle East. And whatever our aims are, they are not likely to be achieved in the face of overwhelming public hostility.

The Jordanian population of 1.5 million divides into three groups of almost equal size. One third is Bedouin, mostly illiterate, uninterested in ideology, and affected neither by Arab nationalism nor by the general stimulus of Western culture. This group is incapable of performing the semi-complex functions required even by the simple economy of Jordan, and if trained to perform these jobs the Bedouins would become subject to precisely those currents of thought which have so agitated their urban cousins. Thus the Bedouins are neither a short-term nor a long-term support for the government except in the way they are now being used, as the policemen of the state.

The Bedouins are the stuff from which romances are cut. Legends of their military prowess and of their loyalty "to the death" have made many think of them as the good Arabs, while their urban counterparts are the bad Arabs or the mob. But even a casual student of Arab history can quote too many examples of Bedouin fickleness for one to credit the legends with their face value. The most recent example is Iraq, in which the Bedouins, although loyal to the living King, were among the first to pledge allegiance to his living successor. We may reasonably expect, therefore, that if the King begins to lose power in Jordan he will find the Bedouins a broken reed; their support may itself be that which will "go into his hand and pierce it."

The second group in Jordanian society is composed of west bank (of the Jordan) Palestinians. Few of them make any pretense of loyalty to the state of Jordan; fewer feel any devotion to the Hashimite ruling family who, in their eyes, not only bungled the defense of Palestine in 1948 but gave the coup de grâce to what remained of Arab Palestine by gerrymandering it, without reference to the wishes of the population, into the petty state of Transjordan.

About 125,000 to 150,000 of this group live along the frontier of hate between Jordan and Israel. This is a strip fifty miles long to the north of Jerusalem. As a result of the so-called Shuna Agreement of March, 1949, King Abdullah, under threat of an immediate attack from Israel, ceded to Israel some one hundred square miles of valley land. The inhabitants, living in hill villages, were thus cut off from their farmlands. They are not, however, legally classed as refugees, since they still live in their original houses, and so do not benefit from United Nations charity. Formerly among the most prosperous farmers in Palestine, they are now destitute and bitter, are able to look from their hills into Israel and to watch others reaping what they regard as their crops. In their enforced idleness, they spend much time brooding on their fate, and for it they blame not only Israel but also the Hashimites, who failed to stop the Israelis.

The third group, also numbering about half a million, is pure refugee. Some of these people have made new, a few even better, lives for themselves, but nearly 350,000 of them are still, a decade after the war, living in camps on a United Nations dole. Even those who are relatively well off, in objective terms, have lost their homes and feel a sort of Zionism not less intense than that felt by European Jewry. The fabric of politics is not woven of strands of objective thought, and even among the objectively well off the longing for scenes of childhood, for the security and honor of the old days, is intense, as intense as is the shame and humiliation of the present. For their sorry lot, they also blame the Hashimite government. A refugee, it will be remembered, assassinated King Abdullah; now the only representative of the old order is King Hussein.

The Jordan government is well aware of the sentiment of its people, but, if it is to aspire to be more than a satrap of some more powerful state, it must use the services of the most educated and capable among its population. Our dependence upon them, for the sort of plans we have elaborated, is indicated by a recent press dispatch. Newsweek reported that "Western officials on the spot believe it is possible to undermine Hussein's opponents by pouring in economic aid and transforming the barren desert kingdom, which now needs an estimated $58 million aid annually just to survive, into a 'showcase.'" Even in flood proportions, this pouring in of money would probably be useless, for the only people who could run the showcase are those now politically disaffected. The economic problems of Jordan are severe enough, but we cannot solve the political problems by economic means.

Hussein has shown his awareness of this fact by his concentration on repression and his preoccupation with security. Allegedly, he keeps a helicopter ready for a quick getaway, and even his bullet-proof Cadillac is driven not by a Jordanian but by an English driver. As Benjamin Wells reported in the New York Times:

The King, tough old Premier Samir el-Rafai and his closest Bedouin aides have stationed 20,000 troops in Amman itself. They are purging the army units and civilian population ' with increasing severity. The prisons are bulging and normal administration of the country has virtually halted.

This reliance upon force can only intensify and aggravate the underlying causes of the present situation. This is of course a Jordanian problem, but our close alliance with Hussein, which probably will not save him for long, will necessarily involve us in his fall. Our lavish expenditures of money or even, in yet another crash program, our use of force can have no future. Our policy has been reduced to a mere holding action.

There are those who agree with this analysis but who also say, "True, we are in a mess, but how do we get out without a terrible loss of face? If we simply ditch Hussein, our friends will never again rely upon us." It is gratuitous to point out that this might have been considered some time ago. To start from this moment, one must draw the sort of distinction made in the Observer in an editorial on July 27. "We [the British] now have a moral obligation to ensure the personal safety of King Hussein and those of his supporters whose lives might be endangered, but it does not extend to maintaining him on the throne indefinitely against the wishes of his people." Surely no democracy can accept such an obligation.

If this is an immediate and expensive problem in Jordan, it is likely to be a coming, even more expensive problem in the Arabian peninsula. To Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia now are spreading currents of thought, emotions, and new desires similar to those which have so agitated the rest of the Middle East in recent years. Arabism or Arab nationalism has already shown itself to be sufficiently strong in Saudi Arabia to force the virtual abdication of King Saud following the abortive attempt by the latter to have President Nasser assassinated. But it should be realized that at least as revolutionary a force in these lands as Nasser's Voice of the Arabs is the image of America presented in our own propaganda, in our movies, and at the installations of our oil companies. And, as in Iraq, a new middle class of merchants, technicians, and professional men is growing. The better the governments, the faster such groups will grow.

If these governments do not evolve politically, if they continue to want to ride the airplane of Western-style progress and yet retain paternalism, they cannot avoid losing the loyalty of their subjects. It is, of course, with the recognized governments that we must deal; we cannot and should not foster revolutionary movements even if they are movements toward our style of government. However, we need not go to the sort of extreme we have seen in Jordan, where our identification with the old regime is complete. If we are again caught relying, as we did in Iraq, on the inertia of the status quo, we will again be caught in the hatred of the people.

The problem of Arab-Israeli relations has been purposely avoided here. It seems to me that significant progress can be made by direct means, but that a lessening of hostility may come as a by-product of a more healthy domestic situation in the several states. Complex enough in itself, the issue of Arab-Israeli relations is rendered impossible of negotiation by the emotional context in which it is viewed. On the Arab side, this is mainly due to the fact that the Arabs regard Israel as the symbol of their inferiority and lack of standing in our eyes. No peace made by a Hussein would be lasting. Where governments gain self-respect and make significant attempts to deal with the pressing domestic problems, a far greater possibility of peace exists.

As we look ahead to what may be a succession of "scissor," revolts in the future, we must also ask ourselves what it is that we have really lost in Iraq. This question does not admit of easy answers, partly because we never decided what was our essential aim there and partly because the situation is still fluid and we may yet influence the course of events to our advantage or disadvantage.

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.