Politics & Policy

Marrakech Journal, Part V

This will be the penultimate installment — or second-to-the-last, if you like things less Latin. Monday’s will be the last: moving this journal into double digits (for Monday’s installment will be Part VI). Here are the links to the previous parts: I, II, III, and IV.

Yesterday, I said I would give you more about Barham Salih, the ultra-smart, ultra-smooth prime minister of Kurdistan, or the KRG, which stands for Kurdistan Regional Government. He is part Oxford don, part Middle Eastern operator: an interesting combo. He lets drop, during a session in the Congress Center, that he has a Ph.D. in statistics. This is not a soft field, and it was probably even less soft when he was in it.

He says that Kurds, years ago, made the decision to stick with, and go for, a federal Iraq: a united Iraq. Many people said, “Oh, no, the Kurds will go their own way, splitting the country.” But they did not. Salih says that, if the country does split apart, God forbid, it will not be the Kurds’ doing. They are in Iraq to stay. It is good for the Kurds, and good for the country as a whole.

Kurdistan is now the most successful part of Iraq (which may not be saying a great deal). And Salih stresses, giving his reasons, that, if Kurdistan can do it, the rest of Iraq can do it.

Salih goes through some of Iraq’s problems, which are numerous. They are political, economic, military, and social. Iraq deals with an internal struggle that is “as intense as ever.” At the same time, says Salih, Iraq lives in the shadow of an “intense regional struggle.” And Iraq is key to the region at large. Get a stable, prosperous Iraq, and you have an infinitely healthier Middle East.

Salih will go even further: “Iran, Turkey, the Arab world, the United States, international terror, you name it: I can’t think of an issue of global importance that is not at play in Iraq today. I remind myself that everyone has a stake in the outcome of events in Iraq. We are not alone.”

Specifically on Iran: Salih says, of course, that Iraq will not tolerate interference in its domestic affairs. Iraq is “mature” enough to decide its own future; that future is not for Iran to decide. Furthermore, Iranians would benefit from a successful Iraq; all would benefit. And “we have had enough of wars. Iraq has always been in the forefront of these conflicts, and Iraqis have paid dearly.”

How about life after the American withdrawal? “Iraq will need the United States to fend off regional predators,” Salih says. To “make sure Iraqi sovereignty is protected.” Whether this means “international forces in Iraq” or “some type of regional architecture that would be guaranteed by the international community,” who knows? But the message seems clear, at least to one listener (me): If the United States and the “international community” turn their backs on Iraq, the country will get swallowed by these “predators,” whether they are Baathist, Qaedist, or Iranian.

Salih dreams a little of a united Middle East. And he makes a provocative point: Europe was the scene of the most terrible hatreds and the most terrible wars — “much worse than we have had.” (That is simply true.) And the Europeans have come together. Is it so far-fetched that the nations of the Middle East will be able to do so?

‐Another participant in this discussion is Masood Ahmed of the IMF: smiling, confident, experienced, sharp. He says that, not long ago, the Iraqi government had a decision to make: whether to raid the central reserves or to borrow money. And the Iraqis “did the right thing” (i.e., borrowed). At least I believe I have followed this correctly. Salih jumps in, saying that, when politicians are facing reelection, they are sorely tempted to do the wrong thing: to go for the easy, grandstanding solution.

Isn’t that an amazing statement from an Iraqi — from any Middle Easterner (outside of Israel)? “When politicians are facing reelection . . .”

By the way, listening to this, I’m reminded of our campaign of 2000, when Vice President Gore, the Democratic nominee, said that he would tap into America’s oil reserves, in order to lower the price of gasoline. All the Republicans — and a few of the Democrats — were saying, “Gimmick City.” And an example of true political irresponsibility.

Have a little more from Masood Ahmed: It is not up to the government to provide jobs. It is up to the private sector to provide jobs. But the private sector can’t hire when the government doesn’t provide infrastructure and basic services. Salih speaks, more than once, about “getting the government out of the way.” I feel like I have stumbled upon a convention of Reaganites.

Recently, Bill Clinton, campaigning for Senator Reid in Nevada, mocked Sharron Angle for saying that senators don’t create jobs. Isn’t Clinton supposed to be smart and Angle dumb? That’s what everyone says.

One more bit from Ahmed: He is talking about the volatility of oil prices. And he says that he is not in the prediction business: He will not forecast the price of oil. When it was $30 a barrel, he received “shiny little pamphlets” from people saying that $30 was the perfect price. When it was $140, he received shiny little pamphlets saying that, actually, $140 was the perfect price — and these pamphlets were from exactly the same people.

One more word about Salih? I think I’ll reprint what I wrote yesterday — just because it’s interesting (and that’s a good enough reason, wouldn’t you agree?):

He is asked about the impending execution of Tariq Aziz. He says, “I’m personally opposed to capital punishment, and Iraq does not need more executions. It needs to move on.” But these matters are properly dealt with by the courts, and politicians should stay out of them.

I wonder whether he opposed the execution of Saddam Hussein. For consistency’s sake and all . . .

‐In the course of their remarks in Marrakech, both Salih and Ahmed mention Sinan al-Shabibi, a couple of times. They mention him kind of teasingly — saying he is an incredibly tight-fisted banker. “He runs a very tight ship,” says Ahmed. “Too tight” sometimes, says Salih. But you can tell that their remarks are admiring.

Who is Shabibi? The governor of Iraq’s Central Bank. I noticed him in 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. I’m going to fish out my Impromptus from that year. Here we are:

The third speaker is [Shabibi] . . . He is the country’s Alan Greenspan. He apologizes for discussing something so dry as economics, rather than something so dramatic as politics, but notes that economics must have its place. “We are moving from a war economy to a peace economy, from a command economy to a market economy, from a highly centralized system to a federalized one” — and all of this takes time and effort. As he speaks, Shabibi impresses me as just the sort of man you want as central banker: sober, measured, factual.

And let me give you one more excerpt:

I’ll close this installment with a vignette. I try to attend a subsequent panel, but have arrived late. The room is full — full to bursting. World Economic Forum staffers and security personnel are letting no one else in. About 15 of us are cooling our heels outside. The staffers matter-of-factly explain to us, “It is full.”

But then comes Amr Moussa [secretary-general-for-life of the Arab League], and he pushes past the staffers and the guards, like he owns the place. He has always owned these conferences! A man behind me says quietly, “They should tell Mr. Moussa it is full.” That is Sinan al-Shabibi, Iraq’s central banker. There I think I see the arrogance and presumptuousness of the Old Guard, in contrast with the new Iraq. I hope — so very much hope — that the Shabibis prevail over the Moussas.

Oh, preach it, baby.

‐I will not say much more about Moussa, as I have written about him often, as the epitome of the Old Guard — the Sunni Arab Old Guard, against which reformers are struggling mightily. But I have noticed something in Marrakech.

First, let me quote a jotting I did last January, after President Obama gave his State of the Union address: “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin. When actors want to preen and so on, they turn that chin upward. Yikes.”

For that, Keith Olbermann, on his MSNBC show, named me one of “The Worst People in the World.” My remarks were racist, you see. Don’t you understand how easy it is to be a racist — or rather, a “racist” — in America? Don’t you see how easy it is to be one of this guy’s “Worst People”?

Anyway, maybe I will make his list again. Moussa is one of the most arrogant-looking men I have ever seen. That doesn’t mean he is arrogant. I’m talking strictly about looks, an appearance — and a comportment. He walks literally with his nose in the air. Literally.

Maybe he just wants to look around?

‐The Israelis are absent this year — rather, Israeli officialdom is absent. The story is this, as I understand it, chiefly from press reports: President Shimon Peres was supposed to lead an Israeli delegation. He is an old Davos-er — I mean, a longtime Davos-er. And the Middle Eastern conference is a natural for him.

Remember, too, that Morocco has been just about the warmest Arab nation toward Israel. Egypt and Jordan are the two nations with peace treaties. But it’s probably true that no nation has been warmer to Israel — more disposed to deal with it.

Apparently, Mohammed VI refused to meet with Peres, while the Israeli president was in Morocco. That is, during the time he was scheduled to be in Morocco. The reason? Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are in trouble, and the Arab world is in an especially anti-Israel mood. (Hard to tell, I know.) Mohammed VI thought it imprudent to meet with an Israeli just now.

So, Peres pulled out of the Marrakech conference, and the other Israeli officials did too. The only Israelis here, as far as I can tell, are private citizens. There are a handful of those.

‐I moderate a panel with a bunch of business sharpies, plus a French ambassador (well, including him, I should say, because he is plenty sharp about business himself). The subject is “the next innovation drive,” greenness, and all that jazz. Afterward, a man comes up to me, introducing himself as an Iraqi who emigrated to America 30 years ago. Why did he leave his native country? You would have too, if you could have.

This man is a perfect American success story: an escapee from persecution who became a business leader and whose children are all world-bestriders. I mean, this Iraqi American, this American, is right out of Central Casting — in the best way. And now he is doing all he can to help Iraq get on its feet.

We talk about the war, of course — the Iraq War. He believes that it was a brave and noble thing: the American invasion, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He believes that history will remember this as the act that gave the Middle East a new beginning. And he believes that George W. Bush is a towering figure, for what he understood and did.

I guess the rest of the world will just have to eat that.

Speaking of eating, I’m a little hungry and am going to look for the Moroccan equivalent of a hot-fudge sundae. Man cannot live on lamb and couscous alone (although that would not be a bad way to go). See you Monday for La Fin? (Being in Morocco makes you feel French, as well as Arab, and Berber.)

 

#JAYBOOK#

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