Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763

David Ignatius

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A Digital Marshall Plan


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Memo to: Bill Gates, John Chambers, Scott McNealy.

Here's an irrationally exuberant proposal for you three masters of the technological universe: Starting today, you should combine forces with each other and the U.S. government to create a "Digital Iraq'' -- a new economy built from the ground up with the latest in networked systems.

America needs your help in Iraq. Brave U.S. soldiers have liberated the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's regime, but now these same soldiers are hunkered down in Iraq's cities. They are facing an increasingly hostile and restless Iraqi population that wants to know what it stands to gain from American military occupation.

The answer should be American technology -- the revolution in digital, networked systems that you represent through your companies, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems. The high-tech revolution may have peaked in America during the 1990s, when companies invested so much in your products that they're still working down huge inventories. But that revolution never began in Iraq.

A "Digital Marshall Plan" would share with the Iraqi people what America does best. Iraqis may have complexes about American power, political institutions and cultural values. But they love our technology. In that sense, you represent the high cards in America's deck right now.

Let's be honest: the Iraqis aren't sure they want to be force-fed our just-add-water version of instant democracy. Already, the amiable retired Army general hired to manage Iraqi reconstruction, Jay Garner, is being replaced by a harder-nosed ex-diplomat named Paul Bremer. His job will be to cobble together a political solution that looks stable enough for America to pull out. Postwar reconstruction is pretty much where it was a month ago, as Baghdad was falling -- which is to say, nowhere.

Surely we can do better than this. Just as the 1947 Marshall Plan in Europe embodied the best of our values, so should Iraqi reconstruction embody the best of what America has to offer today. And that, gentlemen, means you -- if you can put aside your famous differences and work together. Now is the time to make Iraq a showcase for the Middle East -- an Arab version of Singapore or South Korea. Uniquely among the Arabs, the Iraqis have the technological know-how to put your products to work. Drive down Saddoun Street in Baghdad this week and you'll see Iraqi entrepreneurs selling time on Thuraya and Iridium satellite telephones. It may not be Silicon Valley, but Iraq is a country that can use the tools you can provide.

And guess what: Iraq has no clunky old "legacy" computer systems. They either were never built or were destroyed by U.S. bombing of the government intelligence facilities and defense ministries that had access to technology in the old days. The paper records of many banks, ministries and commercial enterprises were burned or destroyed during the looting that followed liberation. So this is a country that can start from scratch -- and do it right.

With your help, Iraq can leapfrog into the digital world -- complete with Microsoft Office software, Internet connections powered by Sun Microsystems servers and pervasive fiber-optic broadband networks built by Cisco Systems.

You've got the products needed for a Digital Iraq sitting in warehouses; rather than wait another year or two for the global economy to pick up, why not give them to the new Iraqi government? Just load up a fleet of C-130 transports with the hardware and send along volunteers drawn from your most idealistic and adventurous young techies, who can teach Iraqis to use the new systems.

The creation of a technologically advanced Iraq on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers could transform the Middle East. At a stroke, it would turn Iraq into the Arab world's first "tiger'' -- a wired economy that could pull the Arabs into a new era of productivity, openness and economic growth.

The three of you are heroes to many Americans because you were prepared to take big risks to build the infrastructure of a new digital world. You succeeded on a scale even you couldn't have imagined, creating an explosion of wealth and creativity.

Now it's Iraq's turn. Maybe, just maybe, a Digital Marshall Plan could reverse the dangerous postwar drift in Iraq and create a strategy that would encourage Iraqis to sing America's praises rather than curse its name.

So sign up for a postwar adventure, and bring along as many of your high-tech colleagues as you can. If you're looking for someone to coordinate things, you might try America's smartest underemployed executive, AOL's Steve Case. But in any event, here's a chance to do something insanely great for your country and the world. Maybe you can make a little money down the road, too.

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04/29/03: Omens of trouble in Iraq
04/25/03: A good deed
04/21/03: Groping toward democracy
04/15/03: Regime change's regional ripples
04/10/03: Tipping Points

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