As usual, I am impressed with the Iraqi officials — Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, is present. They are some of the bravest people on earth. And they are some of the most beleaguered. They face enormous, historic pressures, and they are subject to perpetual, lacerating criticism, from all quarters. In their offices and homes, they face constant death threats, and many of them have seen their loved ones killed. The burdens of other politicians are comparatively light.
Salih is a particularly distinguished, elegant, and dignified man — also an articulate one. I doubt there is a more effective spokesman for Iraqi democracy, and for Arab democracy at large. He has the air of someone who knows that a lot is at stake.
Yes, yes, Iraqi politicians have made mistakes — big ones. But, you know? They are engaged in a horribly difficult project that has huge consequences for us all. And it is only humane and logical to cut them a little slack.
There’s a lot of talk about education at this conference, and some of it comes from Khaldoon Al Mubarak, co-chairman of the Forum, and CEO and managing director of the Mubadala Development Company in the UAE. I will give you a taste of his remarks, in paraphrase:Part III:
“The education system needs to be diversified, in part because the present system is not meeting the needs of the private sector — a sector that is growing, and will grow all the more. Businesses need young people who are equipped for new and vital tasks. In addition, our textbooks are an outrage: In math, for example, fourth-graders read, ‘If you have five Muslims facing four infidels . . .’ What is such a question doing in a fourth-grade math textbook? Textbooks, curricula, teachers — all need to be confronted. Moreover, the exclusion of girls from our schools is a great weakness of the system.
This one features Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan. When he begins his remarks, I sense he sort of makes the room gulp. What he says is, “Foreign intervention brought us freedom from an extremist occupation, from terrorism, from brutal, obscurantist rule.”
He continues (and I paraphrase, just slightly), “It brought the return of refugees from abroad, the return of women to visible life, an infinitely improved economy. The infant-mortality rate was once one of the worst in the world. Now it’s way down. And children are back in school.”
These are “positive developments,” says Karzai. And on the negative side: “The Afghan people are still suffering attacks by terrorists.” Freedom from terrorism has not been entirely achieved. And the country will go down the tubes, he says, without “the international community” and “the cooperation of the neighbors.”
Glancing back at history, Karzai says that “the Karmalites” — the Afghan Communists — “and the Soviets imposed an alien thought on a deeply believing Muslim people, and a traditional people.” And “we used the other extreme to fight the Soviets,” thereafter getting stuck with “the regional plague” — namely, Islamism.
That is a striking and memorable phrase: “the regional plague.”
And, as Karzai tells it, Afghanistan was forgotten by the world “until New York was struck.”
The “international community” now has a choice, he says: It can continue to help Afghanistan, or it can turn its back once more. And if the Americans and their partners “leave before their time, Afghanistan will suffer,” and so, reverberatingly, will the region and world.
Later in the conference, another regional leader will say to an American, “If you leave Iraq too soon, you may find that you have to come back.”
The explosion of youth in the Arab world is a big, big problem. As I think I’ve already mentioned in this journal, there are now 200 million people under 24. And the total population is only 325 million. This is a baby boom, and perhaps the emphasis is on the “boom.” These people are in dire need of some meritocracy — they are blocked by nepotism, by the tyranny of the family name, by the lack of upward mobility, of flexibility. The Arab world, for the sake of us all, needs rapid liberalization.
I’m sitting next to a Lebanese journalist. We are talking about the fate of the Middle East, and the world, over the last quarter-century. She suddenly asks me a blunt question: “Why did the American government allow Khomeini to come to power?”
The source of many, many ills and sorrows, that Islamist ascension to power.