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My Dream My Country
An interview with Professor Emeritus Abbas Alnasrawi

photograph by Natalie Stultz

The tragedy of Iraq can, even as he sits 6,000 miles away in the comfortable confines of his Old Mill office, move Professor Emeritus Abbas Alnasrawi to profound sadness. His interest is professional — the Harvard-trained economist has written extensively about oil, sanctions and underdevelopment there — and deeply personal. Alnasrawi grew up in Iraq, completing his undergraduate studies there before coming to the United States. Though a harsh critic of Saddam Hussein, Alnasrawi also opposes American military intervention. Vermont Quarterly Senior Editor Kevin Foley sat down with him to explore Iraq’s economy, society and future, with special attention to the crucial question of how the country might rebuild after more than 20 years of disastrous war. At the time this story went to press, in mid-March, 250,000 American troops were in the Persian Gulf, braced to fight. In Vermont, Alnasrawi held fast to hope: that the world would find an alternative to bloodshed and a better path to peace and democracy in Iraq after Saddam.

Can you explore your feelings of disconnection or connection with Iraq at this moment in time?

I grew up in Iraq. I graduated from college in Iraq. I worked in various capacities in Iraq before and after I came to this country. The connection for everyone who comes from outside the United States will continue to remain with one’s country of origin. Although I have been here for almost 50 years, I still have a family there.

Most of us know little about life in Iraq. To the extent we imagine it at all, we see a population trapped under the boot of a dictator. You spent your boyhood and young adulthood there; what was the country like then?

The country is under the boot of a dictator. That is a very good characterization of what the Iraqi people have been going through for the last three decades.

The country was a very simple country in the 1940s when I was growing up. A small population: There are only 25 million people there now, you can imagine what it was like 60 years ago. There was a monarchy that had been installed by the Brits in 1921. Iraq was simple, it was poor, and it had been subject to all sorts of instability over its life from 1921 to 1950. In ’58 something happened — oil revenue increased suddenly. There was a coup that overthrew the monarchy, and brought in a military regime. This regime lasted five years, and was overthrown by another military coup, and there was another coup in 1968 that brought the Baath party and eventually Saddam to power.

There’s been tremendous suffering in Iraq since the Gulf War. I’m curious to why — how much is related to sanctions, how much is related to coming out of a decade of near-continuous war, and how much is Saddam…

I agree with the first and third points: sanctions and Saddam. I don’t think coming out of war is a major factor. The situation is this: as soon as Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.N. imposed sanctions. They remain to this date. An important historical point is that when the sanctions were imposed, they said they would continue until Iraq leaves Kuwait and the legitimate government is restored to power. Although the royal family returned to power in 1991, and the Iraqi Army was kicked out and destroyed, the sanctions were expanded and continue today.

When the sanctions were first imposed, nothing was allowed to enter the country. In time, things were relaxed. And here is where Iraq’s government is responsible. The U.N. Security Council told Iraqis they could import $1.2 billion worth of medicine, food and other humanitarian goods in 1991; the government said no, the conditions are too severe for us and you are impinging on our sovereignty. This was a six-year disaster for the Iraqi people.

Did sanctions become a tool to reinforce the regime rather than undermine it?

Yes, exactly. When you have a dictator, you strengthen the dictator by starving the people; they become more dependent on what he gives them.

What can we say about the economy in Iraq now? Where are people working, what are they doing?

The military absorbs a good chunk of the country’s resources. People are not working. There is some importing of goods done outside the sanctions system. The distribution of income is very lopsided; some people are starving while others are enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. The oil industry is depressed; the U.N. has cut off the supply of goods and services to that sector. What can I say? My reading of the situation is that there isn’t much going on. People have engaged in what economists call “dissavings” — they are using and selling their assets just to make ends meet. When you are making $300 a month and all of a sudden you are making $10, there is no functioning economy.

But the country is so rich in oil. As we think about the economic and political effects of this natural resource, what are the positives and negatives?

I have come to the conclusion that in Iraq, oil proved to be a curse rather than a blessing. When you have easy money, oil money, coming to you, the state is going to buy the loyalty of the people. The fundamental principle of democracy, that there is no taxation without representation, was flipped in the oil states; since there is no taxation, there can be no representation.

If we didn’t have oil, there wouldn’t be a man like Saddam. He came to power during the 1970’s, when oil revenue shot up dramatically, and he was able to do all of the things he wanted to, including going to war on Iran. That started the fast decline of Iraq, a slide that eventually led to the decision to invade Kuwait. Now Iraq is a country that may require 30 or 40 years to get back to their income of 30 years ago.

That’s stunning…

As the result of Gulf War and sanctions, Iraq has become one of the least-developed countries in the world in terms of per capita income. Before the Iran and Gulf Wars, Iraq was doing well.

If we look to after some kind of diplomatic or military effort that leads to Saddam being killed or exiled or sent to The Hague…

The Hague. I would like that…

… there’s probably going to be some ongoing United States involvement regardless. If there were a good faith effort to rebuild the country as a democracy, what challenges would we face?

I question the premise. There’s a debate in Washington now — some there would like to use oil revenue to rebuild Iraq and to finance our military campaign. The Pentagon and the vice president are on this side of the issue. The State Department is opposed to this idea, saying that Iraq’s oil belongs to the people of Iraq, and if we are going to occupy the country, we should hold that oil in trust.

This raises another question, what about the bad faith scenario in which this is, in the familiar term, a war for oil…

I was recently on the Arabic station Al Jazeera for a discussion panel. The opening question was, where do you figure oil in this? In any complex situation like going to war, there is by definition more than one variable. Oil is a factor, but it is not the only factor. As Colin Powell said recently in his testimony, there is a consideration that we would like to “reorganize the map of the Middle East.” He wants progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And disarming Saddam, of course. I tend to agree with those three, and add one.

Last year, the White House released a national security strategy that states very clearly that the United States will not allow another country to become a military competitor. Our policy now, especially with the introduction of preemption, is such that we would like to have uncontested control or influence in the Middle East. Given the fact that two-thirds of the world’s oil is there, and given the fact that our economy and that of literally every country in the world is dependent on oil, our interest in Iraq’s oil is not only to lessen our dependence on Saudi oil but to give us leverage that could be used vis à vis other countries.

You may resist this again. But if we stipulate that the United States wanted to start the process of building a functional economy and government in Iraq, how might that process work? What are the obstacles? If we start the pump flowing, then what…

Before we get to that point, a few thoughts. I do not agree there should be a war against Iraq. I do not think that the Iraqi people should be made to suffer again. They have been suffering for more than 30 years under this party and this leader. They were made to suffer during the Iran war, during the Gulf War, and during the sanctions. Be that as it may, we are going to proceed on the assumption that there is going to be war. The human devastation is going to be huge, but what is going to happen the day after?

If we are going to go to Iraq, which I think we are, we will have a moral obligation to put that country back together. Financially, we need to provide whatever it takes. We have in this country a tremendous reservoir of talents that could be channeled to rebuild that economy — the engineers, educators, physicists, economists. One of the things that will need immediate attention is the tendency on the part of the persecuted in Iraq, which is about two-thirds of the population, to engage in revenge against the Baath party. The United States and its allies should prevent this from happening. Otherwise, there will be a bloodbath.

What are the alternatives to war? What would you tell the president if you were advising him?

War is not an answer. We seem to have taken over, making it an American issue, but it is a United Nations issue. But to really answer your question, we need to deal with the components of the question. Is Iraq a threat to the United States? According to the CIA, the answer is no. The only time Iraq may use its weapons of mass destruction is if we attack Iraq. Here we have a country that may or may not have those weapons, but why would they use them? They cannot even deliver those weapons across 6,000 miles. Why not negotiate? Why not try smart sanctions? Why not try to organize a dossier to bring Saddam and his people to The Hague to be tried for what they have done to the people of Iran, Kuwait, and Iraq? Furthermore, why not keep the inspections going? What is the rush to try to upstage and suspend the work of the inspectors? We have been doing this for 12 years. Why can't we wait another five or six months?

When you think about Iraq in five years, in your learned speculation, what’s the dream, the best thing you can realistically imagine?

The dream is planting the seeds of democracy. The country has tried everything, except democracy. People are beginning to believe, I think, there ought to be peaceful rotation of power and elections. My dream for that country, for my country, is democratic institutions being developed right away. One of the crimes of Saddam is that he has been able to stay in power for more than 30 years, which has stunted every impulse for democracy.

What’s the nightmare?

The United States gets bogged down in urban warfare and the destruction will be both widespread and devastating and eventually some Iraqi general will pop up and repeat the scenario of the last 30 years.