Friedman’s Maid

Thomas Friedman [RSS] is a wee bit optimistic this morning. He has a rather simplistic plan for transforming the Arab world:

To put it another way, there are two ways for the U.S. to promote reform in the Arab world — where there is an ocean of untapped brainpower, particularly among women. One way is to try to dictate it, which is not working. American policy has become so unpopular in the Arab world that anti-reformers can easily delegitimize the reform process by labeling it a “U.S. plot to destroy Islam,” and reformers are silenced because they don’t want to be seen as promoting a made-in-America agenda.

The other way for us to promote reform is to get out of the way so people in the Middle East can see clearly that many of their maids’ children — from India, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines — are excelling at math, science and engineering, leaving Arab children, not to mention many American children, in the dust. (Over one million Indians work in Saudi Arabia alone.)

Only when the Arabs focus on how their maids’ children are doing in the world, not what the Americans are doing in their region, will they revisit one of the most famous sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: “Seek knowledge, even unto China. That is the duty for every Muslim.”

Does Friedman really believe that the leaders of the Arab world don’t realize that their economies are undeveloped compared to virtually everyone on the planet? The problem is that these leaders are themselves phenomenally wealthy and privileged under the status quo; they have little interest in ensuring that their maid’s children become well off. Indeed, such wealth generally comes at the price of additional freedom and resistance. Furthermore, all the major Arab states have a significant Islamist movement. Opening up their societies to increase economic prosperity would likely enrage the clerics, since decadence follows wealth as night follows day. Given that most of these leaders’ hold on power is already tenuous, rocking the boat is hardly in their interest.

Friedman’s other idea is more intriguing:

I would suggest that next year the G-8 invite both India and China to join, and hold the next G-10 summit either at one of the manicured campuses of Indian outsourcing companies or in Shanghai’s manufacturing hub. Then invite Arab leaders to attend. India and China were once seen as their equals.

Now, again, it’s not as if the Arab leaders don’t already fully comprehend that India and even China are ahead of them economically. Indeed, it wasn’t all that long ago (in Arab time) that the West was far inferior to the Islamic world, either.

Adding India and China to the G-8 likely makes sense for other reasons, though. For one thing, now that Russia–which has never been an economic powerhouse and shows no signs of heading in that direction–is a member, there’s no rationale I can think of for excluding them. It would give us leverage in directing the ongoing transformation of their economies and provide a much more useful forum than the UN for engaging the world’s most significant states.

FILED UNDER: Middle East
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.