Dream My Country
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 Iraqs 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.
you explore your feelings of disconnection or connection with Iraq at
this moment in time?
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?
been tremendous suffering in Iraq since the Gulf War. Im 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
sanctions become a tool to reinforce the regime rather than undermine
can we say about the economy in Iraq now? Where are people working, what
are they doing?
military absorbs a good chunk of the countrys 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 isnt 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.
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?
If we didnt have oil, there wouldnt be a man like Saddam. He came to power during the 1970s, 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.
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.
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
theres 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?
raises another question, what about the bad faith scenario in which this
is, in the familiar term, a war for oil
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 worlds 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 Iraqs 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.
are the alternatives to war? What would you tell the president if you
were advising him?
you think about Iraq in five years, in your learned speculation, whats
the dream, the best thing you can realistically imagine?