Earl R. Scott - It's possible that Iraq is able to solve its own problems

While it is not possible to fault Don Iler’s conclusion that America is failing to establish Western institutions in Iraq, laying any failure wholly on Iraqi history and culture (Viewpoints, July 18, “America takes aim, misses”) might be wrong.

During 1975 and 1976, my wife and I lived in Baghdad while I worked as a paid consultant to Iraqi Airways. As such, we entertained Iraqi friends, co-workers and their families in our homes, both in Iraq and later in the United States. I believe I have the better view of Iraqi history and culture untarnished by war. I will address three issues from the Viewpoints cover piece: the rule of law practiced in Iraq, Iraqi culture, and the role of bribery — and one more: technical competence.

The rule of law

In 1975, it was necessary for me to enter the Iraqi court system to legally register a contract concerning my company car. When the judge learned that I could barely read Arabic, he instructed the court clerk to go out into the street and bring back a stranger who spoke English.

After assuring himself that the man did not know anyone in the courtroom, the judge had him translate several key features of the contract to me. After that, the judge questioned me at length as to my understanding of one feature in particular that could adversely impact me. Only then would the judge allow me to sign and register the contract.

I have experienced much less deference to the spirit of the law in U.S. traffic courts.

Iraqi culture

I was getting more than a little hot under the collar on being told for the fourth time in as many days that my purchase in Iraq would be there “tomorrow.” It was then that an Iraqi stranger stepped in and said, “You Americans think tomorrow means the next day, but here it means only not today.” It was then I understood Gen. Eisenhower’s frustration in 1942 on learning that the term “tabling a motion” meant two completely opposite things to Brits and Yanks.

In peacetime Baghdad, Iraqi clerks always waited on a visitor first and the local Baghdadi second.

A Pakistani co-worker gave me the this advice: “Always wait for an Arab’s third yes.” One yes means only that they heard you. A second yes means they both heard you and agreed with you. Only the third yes confirms they would do as you asked. This was because, true to their Bedouin culture, an Iraqi is too, too polite to ever say “no” or to vocally disagree. And this, too, explained why I was being told the positive “tomorrow” four days running in lieu of a negative “not today.” In all my time in the Middle East, I heard a lot of the Arabic word for yes, “na’am,” but I never heard an Arab use the word for no, or “la.”

The role of bribery

They are not known as bribes, but we could talk about the size of CEO salaries and of “golden parachutes” in Western culture. We could also talk about tips in the USA, which used to be 10 percent. Now, I believe, 15 percent or more is expected, regardless of the quality of service and, in some cases, automatically included in the bill.

We Yanks adjust our personal economies to such bribes; maybe Arabs do, also.

Technical competence

During the 1970s, Iraqi Airways expanded from a small, five-airplane fleet to a larger, more modern fleet of 11 airplanes. Before expansion, its largest aircraft, two British Tridents, held only 95 seats each. After expansion, its smallest aircraft, three Boeing 737s, each held 116 seats. During a 22-month period beginning in late 1974, Iraqi Airways began introducing the following: three 707-320Bs, three 727-200s, three 737-200s and two 747 convertibles. No other airline in the world has successfully introduced so many new types in so short a period. In April 1976, Iraq flew 66 percent more available-seat-miles than in April of the previous year, and, more importantly, it also produced 66 percent more revenue-passenger-miles.

Along the way, one fact was seen over and over. When things were not going well, we consultants would often hear two yesses and nothing would change, but then, sometime later, things got a lot better. The Iraqis had worked out their own solution to the problem we had identified. It was not our Western solution, developed in our Western culture, but then, it was not our problem, was it?


Call me a fool, but when I consider my observations and the practice of Iraqi law and culture untarnished by war, I am one who feels Iraq just might make it yet!

Earl R. Scott of McMinnville is a retired aviation consultant, where he specialized in establishing bilateral agreements between countries. He has been a docent at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum since 2009.

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