It’s hard to come off as more bizarre than Madonna (she works at it) but that’s how Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, Iraq’s information minister, looks on TV as I’m writing this. With U.S. jets controlling the air over his head and American soldiers just 100 yards or so from where he’s standing for his outdoor news conference in Baghdad, Sahaf has an announcement. “There are no American troops in Baghdad,” he says. Who you gonna believe, Sahaf is saying, me of your lyin’ eyes?

The night before, Sahaf was blaming “the Fox people” for running fake films. Those, he said, were shots made in Hollywood — the tracer fire crisscrossing the night sky over Baghdad, the string of American tanks and armored vehicles rolling into the capital, the bombed-out palaces, the toppled Saddam statues, the people in Basra giving thumbs-up to the British troops.

The real story, he said, was that Iraq still controlled the Baghdad airport and that American troops were committing suicide on the outskirts of the city.

In fact, the airport had become Rummy International and it was the Iraqis who were killing themselves by putting the pedal to the floor and attempting to drive their cars and pick-ups into an approaching column of American M1 Abrams tanks. In putting junky trucks up against the world’s top battle tanks, 63-ton vehicles equipped with machine guns, 120mm cannons, infrared vision devices and automatic target cueing, the Iraqi drivers, of course, were picked off easier than those little plastic ducks that float around at that stand in Kennywood Park, the place where you pluck a duck out of the water and turn it over to see if you won a 10-cent ring or a cheap Hawaiin lei.

Madonna, at least, saw the writing on the wall and decided to withdraw the anti-war video for her new single “American Life.” On top of showing a mushroom cloud over Iraqi children, the video for the title track of the new album shows Madonna in military garb on a fashion runway with some unisex dancers in camouflage. At one point, a grenade is tossed in the lap of a President Bush look-alike. “I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video,” said Madonna. In other words, America’s winning, Dubya’s on top and I’m not as dumb as that big-mouthed Dixie Chick.

In another bizzare appearance before the microphones, Sahaf got it at least half right. “You think we are retarded,” he said. “It is you who are retarded.” Well, we’re not retarded, not by any measure. We’re not, for example, likely to see Tom Daschle being lowered into a shredding machine any time soon. But Shahaf got the first half right. In fact, “retarded” is exactly the word used in a recent United Nations report to describe the lack of human development across the entire Arab world, Iraq included. “All affected countries,” states the report, researched by scholars from the 22 Arab League countries, “have emerged with compounded socio-political problems that have retarded progressive moves toward liberalization and democratization.”

What the U.N. report concludes is that the Arab nations have squandered the wealth generated by oil and robbed their people of basic political freedoms and economic development. At 15 percent, the Arab world’s current unemployment rate is the world’s highest. In terms of scientific development, the Arab region spends less than one-half of one percent of its Gross Domestic Product on scientific expenditures, compared with percents six and three times higher, respectively, in Japan and Cuba.

All told, the total number of books translated into Arabic over the past 1,000 years is less than those translated in Spain in any one year. In terms of the percentage of people who use the Internet and those with access to a personal computer, the Arab world has the world’s lowest level of what the U.N. report calls “connectivity.” Only six-tenths of one percent of Arabs use the Internet.

With women, of course, Arabs lead the world in terms of erecting barriers to development. “Sadly,” says the report, “the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half of its citizens.” And, one could add, its other half is hardly leading the world in terms of anything except state-sponsored suicides. With labor productivity, for instance, output per person in the Arab world was one-third that of North America in 1960; three decades later, it had dropped to 19 percent of the North American level. Overall, aside from sub-Saharan Africa, growth in income in the Arab world over the past two decades was the lowest in the world.

Bottom line, the lack of freedom in the Arab world has delivered a profound lack of human development, delivered a culture that blames the West for its self-inflicted dysfunction, a world of backwardness that is a breeding ground for terrorism, ignorance, irrationality and extremist Islamist movements, a world that fears the individualism, freedom and creativity that is the foundation for political and economic success, a suicide culture that starts wars that it cannot win. The Arab world needs to stop imitating Iraq’s ex-information minister and take a hard look at reality.

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Ralph R. Reiland

Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

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