15 February 2004

Infertile Crescent: The Decline of Iraq

Iraq sits along a stretch of land once so productive that the whole region � which included present-day Syria, Iran and Jordan � was known as the Fertile Crescent. In ancient times, the area led the world in agriculture and technology. It's hard to reconcile that history with the reality of today, when the term "Infertile Crescent" would seem more appropriate.


The First World can respond to these Third World problems in one of three ways. It can provide humanitarian aid once a crisis has arisen. It can ignore the situation as long as possible and then intervene militarily once the crisis cannot be ignored (at a cost, in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, of an estimated $100 billion per intervention when you add up all the potential costs of military action and rebuilding). Or it can intervene before a crisis to stave off looming problems.

There are lots of other countries teetering on the brink. We will be hearing more from Bangladesh, Haiti, Nepal, Indonesia and others. Even for a country as wealthy as the United States, there is a limit to the number of $100-billion interventions we can afford, and there are many alternative uses at home for that money - improving our schools, say, or fixing Social Security or establishing universal health insurance.

The most effective and least expensive approach would be to help Third World countries solve their basic environmental and public health problems before they cripple societies. The cost of a global program to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis - the world's three most costly infectious diseases - is estimated by public health organizations at about $25 billion, or one-quarter the cost of a single military intervention.

Attacking problems before crises is a policy that differs in motivation (though not in policies pursued) from a traditional humanitarian response that comes out of a moral commitment to address crises. Its motive is selfish. Preventing chaos abroad benefits the United States. President Bush would be on the right track with his policy of pre-emption if he were aiming at pre-empting crises, rather than at pre-empting military aggression.

In today's globalized world, any country can pose a threat: Just look at Somalia and Afghanistan, which rank among the poorest, weakest, most isolated countries on Earth. We can't take on the whole world militarily. Keeping weak countries from getting into the kind of trouble Iraq found itself in would ultimately save the U.S. money - and generate global political capital.

Iraq has been misgoverned for centuries. The reason is not the evil of its rulers (that is a necessary, not sufficient, cause). The real reason is the ecological devastation Jared Diamond is writing about. An impoverished environment produces an impoverished society and impoverished societies tend to have rulers who are bad, mad and dangerous much more frequently than prosperous societies. On the other hand, prosperous societies can get a tad grandiloquent:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims of the earth, son of Cambyses, great king, king of An�an, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of An�an, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of An�an, of a family which always exercised kingship, whose rule [the gods] B�l and Nabu love, whom they want as king to please their hearts.

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon who against the will of the gods were [enslaved?], I abolished the corv�e which was against their social standing. I brought relief� to their dilapidated housing, putting thus an end to their main complaints. Marduk, the great lord, was well pleased with my deeds and sent friendly blessings to myself, Cyrus, the king who worships him, to Cambyses, my son, the offspring of my loins, as well as to all my troops, and we all praised his great godhead joyously, standing before him in peace.

As far as I know George Bush has not read the Cyrus cylinder, but it really does sound amazingly familiar. The rhetoric of empire is not distinguished for its originality.

Cyrus occupied Babylon, then the centre of the civilised world, in 539BC. By 330BC the deteriorating ecology of Iraq enabled Alexander to put an end to the Persian empire. Despite growing environmental problems the Persians had retained enough military force to conduct a number of pre-emptive wars in the Aegean in order to keep the world safe from the unruly Greeks. Militarism is not a permanent solution, especially if the soil in the imperial breadbasket is going saline. (BTW, Cyrus' religious policy assumed that the local chief god, Marduk or Yahweh for instance, was always the same as Ahuramazda and that other religions therefore were identical with his own.)

Diamond identifies soil erosion as a major threat to our civilisation, one we are doing nothing about:

He said the media focused on fossil fuel problems, climate change, biodiversity, logging and forest fires, but not on the soil because it was less spectacular.

"There are about a dozen major environmental problems, all of them sufficiently serious that if we solved 11 of them and didn't solve the 12th, whatever that 12th is, any could potentially do us in," he said. "Many of them have caused collapses of societies in the past, and soil problems are one of those dozen."

And if you haven't read Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, you should.

Caveat: Saddam Hussein is guilty of crimes against humanity and should be punished for those crimes.

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