TCS Daily

Out With the Ba'ath Water

By James Pinkerton - December 15, 2003 12:00 AM

DAMASCUS, Syria -- "We were never Marxists." That was the word from Mahdi Dahlala, editor of the newspaper Ba'ath. Oh, OK, you Syrians were never Marxists. But you're still a darn poor country -- a per capita GDP of about $3500, about a tenth of the US. All of which proves that even modified Eastern European-style collectivism can be almost as devastating as the real thing. The Syrian experience is a sad reminder that a powerful vision -- the creation of a workers' paradise run by a vanguard "democratic centralist" party -- can trump common sense, at least for a while.


Yet it's hard to blame the Syrians entirely for ending up the way they did. They didn't ask to be colonized by the French and British after World War I. In the '20s and '30s, Arab nationalists, such as the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq, yearned for self-determination. But Arab revolutionaries weren't inclined to adopt the capitalist-pluralist model of their colonial masters; instead, they looked around and found other models, notably, fascism and communism. Back then, it seemed to many that some sort of totalitarianism was the wave of the future. Indeed, no less a figure than Anne Morrow Lindbergh -- wife of Charles Lindbergh and best-selling author -- coined that phrase in her 1940 book, The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith; she argued that a totalizing ideology was the solution for the "decay, weakness, and blindness into which all the 'Democracies' have fallen."


The wave of fascism was soon defeated and de-futured in Europe, of course, but not in the Middle East. And so while Aflaq's Ba'ath ("Reconstruction") Party was strongest in Syria and Iraq, almost all Arab countries followed some variant of the Ba'ath platform after they gained independence in the '40s and '50s. "Give me five years," said the Syrian dictator Husni Zaim in 1949, "and I will make Syria as prosperous and enlightened as Switzerland." Zaim was killed that same year in a coup d'etat.


Socialism was never a good fit for Arabs. The typical pattern was that the governments, including Syria's, would nationalize the banking, transportation, and communication industries, and heavily regulate trade as well. Then they would leave the rest of the economy alone. The result was that the entrepreneurial class would either leave -- Syria, with a population of 17 million, counts 12 million expatriates worldwide -- or compete and haggle over a small pie stunted and shrunken by the dead hand of their state.


Here in Damascus, I visited the Hamidiyeh Souk, the big street mall, which bursts with entrepreneurial activity. The merchants are energetic and eager to make the sale; indeed, they all seem able to haggle in English as well as Arabic. I reckoned that they could make 50 or 100 times as much money if they were doing business in Detroit or Los Angeles. Come to think of it, that's exactly what their expatriate American cousins are doing.


Belatedly, the Syrian economy is opening up. The new President, Bashar al-Assad, may be a dictator like his late father, Hafez al-Assad, but he has concluded that Syria will be left in the dust if it doesn't modernize and liberalize. Some privatization has occurred; three private radio stations are due to open in the next few months. Satellite dishes are visible everywhere, which is more than one can say about some American allies in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia.


As for the Internet, it is growing, too. I visited an Internet café that offered 16 computers with reasonably fast connections; it had been open just a month, the proprietor told me. And the price was right for Syrians: 50 Syrian Pounds an hour, or $1. To be sure, the Net here is somewhat regulated -- Yahoo!, for example, is blocked -- but as I surfed the web I could find any other outlet I wanted, including such non-Syria-friendly portals as The New York Post and


Still, there's the issue of convincing the world that Syria is a good place to invest. Increasing business confidence will take some doing. It would help, for example, if the Syrians weren't engaged in a Cold War with Israel.


But in the meantime, there are other steps that could be taken. Mahdi Dahlala makes a point when he says that the Syrians were never Marxists, and he's right; the regime never attempted, for example, to collectivize agriculture. Indeed, he told me that he thinks of himself as a European-style social democrat. But Dahlala and the rest of the Syria government -- the headquarters of the paper is in the government's Ministry of Information -- seem vastly more "social" than "democrat." Indeed, the formal name of the ruling Ba'ath Party, expressed in English, is the Syrian Socialist Reconstruction Party. And that's kind of a downer, capitalism-wise.


Rateb Shallah, the president of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce, urged me to look past such nomenclature: "It's not what you are called, it's what you are doing." But when Tony Blair took over the British Labour Party in the '90s, he forced his brethren formally to renounce the goal of public ownership of the means of production. Blair's move was symbolism, but not small symbolism. Meanwhile, for a chamber of commerce man, Shallah didn't seem to have his face set entirely in a free-market direction. When I asked him to name the economist he most admired, his answer was Andreas Papandreou, the socialist prime minister of Greece in the '80s and '90s.


Indeed, there's still obviously a large Left presence in officialdom. The December 10 issue of the English-language Syria Times -- which, like all newspapers here, runs only if the government wants it to -- included an op-ed straight from the Red fever swamps. In "Political economy of war and globalization," one R. Zein recycled the orthodox Marxist view of the world. Recent events, Zein opined, "confirm there is a close relation between the imperialist system and its repercussions on the one hand and between the state of war and the troubles of the other." And the core of that imperialist system, of course, is America, which is "totally controlled by the military industrial junta." The "ultimate objective" of this junta, moreover, is the "plundering the world's wealth and health." But, Zein concludes, displaying the rigid optimism of The True Believer, "though the current US imperial drive is now seen at its peak... it will soon go to the garbage can of history." Lenin couldn't have said it better himself.


In the West, this was the standard view on college campuses in the '60s and '70s, as communists and fellow travelers sought to connect capitalism to the Cold War -- as if Adam Smith had ever heard of Joe Stalin. It was not really until the '70s that the lonely free-market voices of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were backstopped by supporting institutions, such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Those and other think tanks helped to create the "counter-establishment" that would produce a flow of free-market literature to oppose dopey Marxissant thinking. We'll see whether such systematic approach to the defense of economic liberty ever comes to Damascus -- TechCentralStationArabia, anyone?


Still, the Syrians have some cards to play, even if those cards, for the time being, are more political than economic. The Chamber of Commerce's Shallah was eager to tell me about Syria's forthcoming association with the European Union. "The EU wants to have a free-trade zone with its southern flank," he observed, although he allowed that the trade-zone-idea was driven as much by politics as by economics. Noting the huge issue of Arab and Muslim immigration into Europe, he added, "The EU has realized that if this region has mishaps, it causes problems for them." Of course, as the EU proves, political integration fosters economic integration, and that can only be good for Syria.


Meanwhile, as the EU and Syria grow closer together, the US and Syria are moving further apart. The new Syria Accountability Act imposes further economic and political sanctions on Damascus. My guess is that the law won't have much impact, which is the usual fate of embargoes in a fungible world. There's very little American presence in Syria, anyway; as I look around this city, I get the feeling that Mercedes, Toyota, and Nokia can fill the trade-void just fine.


But for the time being, Syria still labors under malign neo-Soviet influence. The big political news last week was the visit of Alexander Lukashenko, the Brezhnevian president of Belarus. And at the Sheraton Damascus, the big noise was a Bulgarian food festival. All this suggests that the Syrians still look to the old aspects of "New Europe" for guidance.


Yet Syria's connections to all of Europe have a larger significance. As I argued in an October 23 TCS piece, the Arabs seem to be forging an alliance with Europe, resulting in political and demographic entity called "Eurabia." Such a hulking conglomeration of people, technology, resources, and, yes, anti-Americanism would be bad news for the United States and its allies.


The Syrians may not be getting rich anytime soon, but they are not without political savvy. If they can forge an alliance with powerful and rich countries to their north, they might be able to gain through politics some of what they can't gain through economics. There's a reason leftist redistributionists like the phrase "political economy" -- because they would rather think about producing political rhetoric, as opposed to producing valuable goods and services.


Yet so far, at least, the Syrians seem more attuned to political economics than real-world economics. Agitproppy jargonizing might be good for the Syrian soul, but it will do far less for the Syrian bank account. That's one constant of socialism, in any country, the whole world 'round.



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