A new path in the Middle East: openness and trade

Six years later, 4,000 American service members are dead and more than 100,000 remain in Iraq and will likely stay there until 2011. Additionally, in the six years since the invasion, the West has witnessed the rise of an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Iran.

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How did the world get from the vice president’s predictions to where it is today?

In his new book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that a fundamental miscalculation by the George W. Bush administration on the consequences of America’s actions in Iraq and a failure to engage the middle class in Middle Eastern countries are two key reasons for the current situation in the region.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush administration officials, lead by Cold War-era veterans Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sought to change the political landscape of the Middle East though intervention. The administration believed that if Saddam Hussein were toppled, the new freedoms experienced by Iraqi citizens would ignite a push for reform in Iran.
In his book, Nasr claims that the engine for liberalization and democracy in the Middle East is not war or sanctions, but trade. 

“The West has become too enamored of the notion that democracy will flower spontaneously once there are free and fair elections. This discounts the vital importance of fundamental changes in society, law, and the relations between states and their citizens that are necessary for democracy to succeed. Western history clearly shows that those fundamental changes followed on the evolution of commerce,” Nasr writes.

Nasr gives two examples of countries in the Middle East, Dubai and Turkey, that have embraced trade and commerce.

Dubai, a small emirate on the Persian Gulf, has become one of the most influential cities for business in the world. But Dubai was not always this way. Fifty years ago, it was a backwater of Bedouin tents and camel caravans. Then, in 1959, the emir Sheikh Rashid al-Martoum began a program of creating laws that would cater to businesses.

Turkey is a similar case. The nation embraced secular reforms and enacted business-friendly practices, and between 2002 and 2007, the nation’s GDP nearly tripled. Turkey’s ruling AKP party is led by devout Muslims, but accepts secularism and firmly supports modernization, Nasr notes.
Nasr forcefully argues that trade and commerce can be forces for change, and claims the U.S. should support the middle class in Iran if it wants to bring about reform.

At the end of 2008, Iran was on the verge of the economic abyss. Official inflation in the country was 27 percent and one in every five people was unemployed (unofficial estimates put the number closer to two in five). Nasr argues that the protests in Iran this year following the elections were, in part, a response to the immense economic turmoil brought about under the rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While some in Washington are calling for sanctions against Iran for its secret nuclear facility near Qom, Nasr argues that sanctions disproportionately hurt the private sector and the social classes, which “are precisely the forces that must gain strength if Iran and the Middle East are ever to have a hope of becoming capitalist and liberal-democratic.”

“Sanctions, in other words, run the terrible risk of weakening the very forces upon which hopes for change — so vividly captured by the Green movement of summer 2009 — must depend,” Nasr writes.

At a time when U.S. policymakers are facing increasingly difficult decisions on how to deal with Iran, Nasr offers a lucid account, filled with supporting evidence, that passionately argues for engagement with Iran and other countries in the Middle East.

This book is a must-read for every member of Congress and anyone concerned with Middle East policy.

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