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The costs of conflict in the Middle East. Geopolitics ignores human suffering

By Charles H. Percy / December 22, 1986



WHEN Americans think about conflict in the Middle East today, their thoughts center on ``secret'' arms deals and fighting that pits Arab against Persian, Arab against Arab, and Arab against Israeli. The chief rationale for United States interest and involvement in the region seems to be geopolitical - keeping the oil flowing and ensuring that our friends are secure from the Soviet influence and, of course, from each other. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of what was, and should continue to be, our overriding objective in the Middle East: promoting peace, not furthering fighting. We forget that, as long as peace remains elusive, there are no winners - only losers - in the Middle East.

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Perhaps we forget because we live so far from the Middle East and tend to think of the conflict there in impersonal, conceptual terms. Even by reading the best newspapers and watching the most in-depth television coverage, it is impossible to grasp the magnitude of the costs that decades of strife have wrought. It is just this reality, however, and not intangible notions of geopolitics, that should drive US policy.

To bring this point closer to home, it is instructive to review some of the tremendous costs the peoples of the Middle East have borne over the past several decades. While conflict has been punishing on every country in the Middle East, Lebanon provides one of the most dramatic examples. Consider Lebanon before the outbreak of civil war in 1975:

Because of its prime location, Christian and Muslim population, and mercantile heritage, Lebanon was the recognized bridge between the West and the Middle East, the region's undisputed commercial and financial center.

Lebanon boasted one of the highest per capita levels of gross national product among developing countries, some $1,300 a year.

It had the highest literacy rate in the Arab world.

It developed a higher proportion of skilled labor than any other Arab country.

With a services sector already making up 70 percent of GNP, Lebanon was poised to boom at an unprecedented rate as the neighboring Gulf states' economies took off as a result of quadrupled oil prices.

Against this background, consider some of the heavy human and economic costs of 11 years of civil war:

The core of the Lebanese professional class, vital to economic activity and growth, has emigrated; 600,000 to 900,000 are estimated to have fled in 1975-76 alone.

By one estimate, the chief indicator of economic growth - GNP - declined 60 percent in real terms between 1974, when civil war ignited, and 1976. Even with the 1980 recovery, GNP that year represented only about 60 percent of the 1974 level.

Real GNP has declined steadily since the Israeli invasion, with industry now running at barely 40 percent of capacity. And with credit now virtually unobtainable, the chances of Lebanon's maintaining even present levels of economic activity are slim.

Lebanon's economic infrastructure - its housing, roads, telecommunication, and water supply systems - has been severely damaged. According to one estimate, it will require a 10-year investment of $1.2 billion a year to reconstruct the country.

Unfortunately, the almost incomprehensible level of human and economic losses in Lebanon are not unique in a Middle East that knows little peace.

But how could this be otherwise in a region where the leading industry is war? How could this be otherwise in a region where, when it comes to financing imports, national priorities are clear: War comes first, followed by staple foods, raw materials, and spare parts. As an Iraqi Cabinet minister recently put it, ``Development now comes second to the position of the war.''

``The war'' alluded to by the Iraqi minister is, of course, the tragic conflict between Iran and Iraq - a conflict that provides another mind-boggling example of wasted human and economic resources.

As if the loss of 250,000 lives isn't costly enough, Iranian authorities estimate that their economic losses for the first five years of the war totaled $309 billion - roughly $5 billion a month. Iraq, it would seem, is ``lucky'' by comparison: Only 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, and the Iraqi economy is drained of only $600 million to $1 billion a month to wage war against Iran.

To put these numbers in perspective, consider some comparisons. At a minimum, Iran and Iraq combined divert from their economies $15 billion to $16 billion a year to do battle - more than it would take to rebuild Lebanon, more than the World Bank will have lent countries around the world this year, and more than the US will have spent on its entire development and security assistance program this fiscal year.