OP-EDS

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November 22, 2002

Prudence and Foresight

This is Baghdad: November 19, 2025. Three soldiers enlisted in the American contingent of the Republican Guards are patrolling Ar Rasafah, the section of the city that includes the U.S. embassy on the one side, and the Sheraton and Palestine hotels on the other, and faces the Presidential Palace shining on the other side of the Tigris. Seven fighter planes take off from the Rasheed airport, dancing in the sky, swiftly moving and showing off in a solemn celebration marking the 22nd anniversary of American occupation, or rather, the establishment of the so-called provisional American-Iraqi commonwealth.

Groups of Iraqi students flock out of Baghdad University. Seven students are huddled around one guy, who is reading a letter. They are crying and shouting in what appears to be a very happy moment. Jalal, the guy with the letter and a student in the Paul Wolfowitz-Mesoud Barzani Center for Democracy, has just won a scholarship from the National Endowment for Democracy to study at the Kennedy School of Government for two years. About two thousand Iraqi students attend universities in the U.S. annually. Most of them attend really lame colleges, but a couple dozen actually make it to Ivy League schools—and then there are the American universities in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Karkuk, and As Sulaymaniyah. If attending Harvard is the dream of the upper class youth, marrying one of the two hundred thousand American soldiers stationed in Iraq is the dream of the impoverished Iraqi girls. Two decades of intense indoctrination has created an inferiority complex in this formerly proud Middle Eastern nation. The descendants of Harun Rasheed, the inheritors of the glorious Abbasid legacy, now perceive themselves mostly as the pariahs of American society. But they don't resent it. After all, the situation before the war was much worse: They were faced with starvation and death on a daily basis, due to both the extended sanctions, which lasted for 12 years, and the arbitrary detentions, purges, and massacres of the late Saddam Hussein. Those gloomy days are over now.

Iraqis, or rather the Iraqis who live in the urban centers, enjoy a standard of living much higher than their Middle Eastern neighbors. On the other hand, various American businesses—mostly engaged in oil extraction and refining, but also in such fields as chemicals and petrochemicals, agriculture and textiles—enjoy significant benefits. Everyone is happy! Or are they?

The current situation is totally unsustainable, both from the American and the Iraqi points of view. One of the worries is the "dark Arabs." They live in the outskirts of Baghdad, in Shaykh Hamid and Al Kazimiyah, and other places whose names would not even be uttered in central Baghdad. They live in the north, south, west, and east; it is as if the entire civilized zone is surrounded by them. They are the ones who band into guerrillas and launch attacks on U.S. military installations. The first half of the year 2025 alone witnessed as many as 21 attacks by the Iraqi guerrillas that ended in casualties.

"Who and what are we protecting here?" a soldier from Durham, North Carolina, asks. A graduate of Duke University and one of the first round of soldiers recruited under the "universal draft" legislation earlier this year, he questions the wisdom of U.S. presence in the Middle East. With unemployment rates as high as 9% and the income gap wider than ever before in the U.S., almost everyone is questioning the prudence of American presence in the Middle East. Why has the U.S., in spite of amassing domestic problems, channeled its political will and economic resources abroad—especially in an obscure and remote place like the Middle East? Is it religion? Is it the interest of individual politicians? Oil consortiums? Defense industry? Maybe all of them; or maybe something overriding all the above—the American elite's incommensurability with the material world, with the reality of economic, social, racial, and other problems at home.

The U.S. today, in the year 2002, appears as a man who got angry with what is happening at home with his wife, and, not having the courage to face his domestic problems, unleashed his anger on someone in the street. This someone was completely remote and obscure, someone completely unrelated to the problems he is facing. That someone was Iraq.

But looking back from 2025, did it change anything? "Look at this, man—we are guarding Chinese companies and business interests here. We should be working, giving substance to the American dream," Jesse from Colbert, Alabama, said to me once. I think it was true when he said that six years ago, and today, even more so. It is mostly accepted by now that the 21st century is clearly "the Asian Century." When the U.S. government finally declared that it could not subsidize even 5% of prescription drugs, Sumitomo Bank rushed with a relief package to save Washington's face. Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong have long since replaced New York and Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles in international political economy and culture.

Huntington's demographic nightmares have also come true: despite billions of dollars flowing to missionary activity, and despite mass conversions to Christianity in Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere, Islam has replaced Western Christianity as the most popular religion of the world.

Even Europe, the most sluggish continent, is growing at a higher rate than the U.S., partly because it does not spend $340 billion on national defense annually. But its democracy and open society were not butchered by the second wave of McCarthyism that took over the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century. This allowed for deliberation and prudence to take precedence in policy decisions, rather than prejudice and bipartisan conformity in launching a series of unprofitable wars.

The U.S. and the world in 2025 look very different indeed from the U.S. and the world in 1925. The land of democracy and freedom—and above all, the land of economic prosperity that everyone was looking up to with adulation—is long gone. Jeffersons and Lincolns are replaced with unknowns. The Congress is parceled by religious fanatics and special interest groups, blind to the welfare of the people they were meant to serve. As Shanghai rises and Berlin rejoices, the Mayflower dwindles by the Tigris.