The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.



Poster for the Marshall Plan

A few years ago I was contacted by a young researcher by the State Department's Policy and Planning bureau, which is a kind of internal think tank. The researcher had written a book about the Marshall Plan's success in postwar Europe, and was now conducting research into the possibility of implementing a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. When he explained this to me, I had to resist the urge to walk away or yell at him (it helped he was quite smart and well-informed).

After 9/11, the idea of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East that would transform it into a zone of peace, stability and tolerance was frequently raised. After all, for politicians and some in the media it's a facile idea that has some resonance, it's based on a genuine success (although some say it's exaggerated), and it makes those advocating it sound like concerned progressive citizens of the world (albeit an American world.)

This silly idea makes some rather grand assumptions about American's role in postwar Europe: that the Marshall Plan is alone or mostly responsible for European postwar recovery (rather than, say, the beginning of European integration or the dominance of leftwing governments with a good combination of social and industrial policy in many Allied countries). But it makes even sillier assumptions about the applicability of a similar program in the Arab world.

There is no similar ability to exercise economic pressure on many Arab countries, as the US could on many European states that had war debt. Iraq aside, the US does not occupy many Arab countries, even if it has bases around the region. Its ability to project power in the region, while considerable, is nothing like what existed in postwar Europe. Jordan aside, the US does not have considerable control over domestic policy of Arab states, even if it can apply pressure (here compare to Germany, Greece or Italy in the postwar era). There is not even the same comparative level of industrialization in place in the region, as opposed to the degree of advanced industrialization that existed in Germany, France and Britain during and after WW2. Perhaps most importantly, the human resources are simply not there to steer such a region-wide developmental project in a relatively enlightened and democratic way.

The US cannot implement a Marshall Plan in the Middle East, or even in a single country, because since 1956 it has implemented the Eisenhower Doctrine there: containment of communism and maintenance of US-allied regimes against Soviet influence. The fall of the Soviet Union has not changed this (perhaps only replaced communism with Islamism), and the Clinton administration only added to the Eisenhower Doctrine an embarrassingly lob-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that reinforced the need for pliable dictators. A Marshall Plan for the region can only be a gravy train for regimes that are structurally incapable of producing progressive social and economic development.

This is why it's sad to see the kind of op-ed published in the Washington Post calling for a Marshall Plan for Yemen. Aid might be part of a solution to prevent Yemen from turning into a failed state, but calling it a Marshall Plan introduces completely unrealistic expectations -- not to mention the kind of resistance it might encounter considering how US presence in the region is perceived negatively by so many.

There is another reason to skeptic, for American citizens. Proponents of nation-building (and to some extent COIN, which entails some form of nation-building and pacification) always say "it will cost a lot and take time" but leave it at that -- just a caveat emptor. Well, doing things that have no guarantee of working, are expensive and open-ended doesn't exactly sound like a great plan, particularly for spiraling US debt. This automatic resort to a foreign policy success in the 1950s -- I call it Marshallplanism -- shows more than laziness; it's tinged with a (perhaps nostalgic) view of American power than simply does not square up with reality.

Also read:

✩ Brian Whitaker, who's written a book on Yemen, has his own thoughts on the issue.

✩ Marc Lynch says a sense of perspective is needed in American thinking on Yemen, and tackles the aid issue by saying:

Development assistance is nice, and I'm generally for this kind of whole-of-government assistance and engagement, but Yemen is one of the most underdeveloped places on earth, with a vast expanse and an inhospitable terrain and extremely limited state penetration. It is also mind-bogglingly corrupt. Development aid sent to the Yemeni government will likely simply be funneled in to the same kinds of projects that are currently well-funded (many of them on the Riviera), or else wasted like water in the ocean.

Bernard Haykal suggests a regional solution involving the GCC, which seems much more reasonable to me. (I'm tempted to go on at length here about how Saudi Arabia is the key problem, but this is not my area of expertise so I'll shut up.)

The Human Province also tackles the issue of aid to Yemen.