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Iraq, Unplugged
Beyond the polls, op-eds, and PowerPoints, what's really going on.


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Michael Rubin

On Friday, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby on five counts of obstruction of justice, false statement, and perjury. The charges are serious but, as columnist David Brooks noted in the New York Times, Fitzgerald found no evidence of the broad conspiracy hinted at by journalists, bloggers, and partisan pundits. Nevertheless, opponents of the Iraq war have painted the indictment as evidence of original sin. The American Conservative, for example, accused the Bush administration of “forging the case for war.” Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington argued that “the scandal has reignited a national debate about the White House lies and deceptions that led us to war in Iraq.”

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Washington has always been an arrogant town. Whatever the issue, pundits use the crisis of the day to score partisan points. Sure, there should be accountability for intelligence failures not only about overestimating Iraq’s weapons program in 2003, but also for underestimating them in 1991. Nor should policymakers feel comfortable about previous Central Intelligence Agency misanalysis of nuclear programs in India, Pakistan, and Libya. But the Iraqi people should not be sacrificed upon the altar of Bush hatred, Clinton hatred, or Kerry hatred.

Too often, countries like Nicaragua, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq become templates upon which U.S. pundits and politicians wage political battles unrelated to the plight of the people actually living there. The fiercest critics of the Iraq war have never stepped foot in Iraq. Some professors say they speak Arabic and volunteer informed comment, but they have yet to visit the country about which they claim expertise (Iraq Air flies several times a day to Baghdad from Amman, Dubai, and Istanbul). Many congressmen and think-tank scholars have visited Baghdad or various forward-operating bases at the invitation of the State Department or Pentagon, but they have not escaped the strict U.S. security parameters. Lunch in the embassy cafeteria gives little more insight into the situation in Iraq than would lunch in Peoria. Few embassy officials escape the Green Zone or suffocating convoys. Their PowerPoints seldom correlate to reality, not by design, but rather because the treatment is too sterile and unchecked by personal interaction with ordinary Iraqis.

A Complex Picture

Those who have experience beyond the bubble in Iraq paint a very different picture. It is not always rosy. Professors Fouad Ajami and Eliot Cohen, both of Johns Hopkins University, have made critiques that not everyone in the Bush administration or the foreign-policy elite wants to hear. Kanan Makiya is often acerbic in his criticism–which is exactly why his input is so valuable.

Wherever they stand on the political spectrum, the nuance of debate among those with experience in Iraq stands apart from those who may cloak themselves with self-righteousness, but have unrelated political axes to grind.

Iraq is a complex country, difficult to crystallize in a simple poll. But this is exactly what too many news organizations seek to do. On October 24, 2005, for example, the Guardian reported a new poll finding that 82 percent of Iraqis were “strongly opposed” to the presence of foreign troops in their country. Critics of the war seized on the poll to demand immediate withdrawal.

True: Polls do not lie. Iraqis dislike occupation. They resent stopping on busy highways for slow-moving military convoys. They juxtapose the Green Zone’s generators with their own worsening electricity supply. They fail to understand why U.S. diplomats who seldom leave their quarters must block off the center of their city rather than build their cantonment on its outskirts. They are annoyed by helicopters hovering over their villages. But such annoyance with occupation does not translate into demands for immediate withdrawal.

Polls in mature democracies like the United States are difficult enough to conduct and get right. The task is far more formidable in post-autocratic societies. When pollsters instead ask Iraqis to prioritize their top-20 concerns, withdrawal of Coalition troops usually ranks near the bottom of the list. Restoring electricity, combating corruption, and maintaining security are consistently at the top priorities.

Iraqis are struggling to reconstruct their country and their lives, but they are not desperate. Unemployment is high–the Iraqi government estimates it to be 28 percent nationwide. Underemployment is higher. But the war did not create Iraq’s unemployment. Nor, for that matter, is U.S. bombing responsible for decrepit schools, potholed streets, and poor infrastructure shown so often on network and satellite-news channels. Forensic auditors who reconstructed Iraq’s prewar budget were astounded by Saddam Hussein’s disdain for his country. In fiscal year 2002, for example, the Iraqi government spent only $5 million total on the physical plant of school buildings. Saddam’s palaces, though, had elaborate fountains, Italian marble, and gold-plated inscriptions. This does not mean U.S. officials are without blame. Neither the Coalition Provisional Authority nor the United States Agency for International Development has much to show for billions of dollars spent on grandiose projects.

New Economic Life

Nevertheless, Iraq’s economy is booming. Many Iraqis–denied employment under Saddam Hussein’s regime for reasons of ethnicity, sectarian identity, or for refusal to join the Baath party, now have jobs. Iraqis’ own private investment, aided with capital remitted from family members abroad, has enabled the private sector to boom. Banks, restaurants, and furniture stores occupy what just last year were empty lots or abandoned storefronts. In August 2005, new business registrations have topped 30,000; this figure does not include the number of start-ups which still ignore Iraqi-registration rules.

Ordinary Iraqis are financially better off now than they were at any time in the past two decades. According to World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimates, per capita income has doubled since 2003. Iraq’s per capita gross domestic product is today almost twice that of Yemen and nearing that of Egypt and Syria, hardly a sign of failure in a country in which, just three years ago, antiwar groups insisted children were starving en masse. Statistics aside, the Iraqi economic boom is apparent to anyone who visits an Iraqi market. Not only are appliances and luxuries in the stores, but customers are actually purchasing them.

Iraqis today employ technologies that were nonexistent or off-limits to all but the Baathist elite just three years ago. As of September 2005, there were more than 3.5 million cell-phone subscribers in Iraq, for example. Under the Baath party, there was no cell-phone service, and possession of satellite phones was a capital offense. Internet cafés dot not only Baghdad thoroughfares, but also dusty back streets in provincial towns. When I visited the (restored) marshlands of southern Iraq, I checked my e-mail and sent dispatches from internet cafes not only in the Maysan provincial capital of al-Amarah and the Dhi Qar provincial capital of Nasiriyah, but also in small, dusty towns like Islah, a Dawa stronghold on the edge of the marshes.

Daily reports of violence suggest Iraq is tearing apart at the seams. Ethnic strife remains a possibility, but it need not happen. While the Bush administration has been inept at making its case, the White House has little for which to apologize. Iraqis debate. They tolerate dissent. Politicians hash out compromise. The constitution may not be ideal, but it is fair. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Saudis, Syrians, Iranians, Tunisians, and Egyptians still struggle under dictatorships. They lack a free press. While self-described liberal bloggers pillory the White House, they ignore the plight of Lotfi Hajji, president of the Tunisian Syndicate of Journalists; Ayachi Hammami, secretary general of the Tunis Section of the Tunisian League for Human Rights; or Nejib Chebbi, secretary general of the Progressive Democratic party, all of whom are conducting a hunger strike in Tunisia to win the same press freedoms now enjoyed by 25 million Iraqis. Libyan dissident Fathi el-Jahmi continues to rot in prison for demanding that Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi allow contested, multiparty elections. If only Arianna Huffington, Juan Cole, The Nation, or the New York Times would focus some of their attention on these dissidents’ plights, the world might be a better place.

Democracy and reconstruction are processes. Progress is slow, but to those who know Iraq, it is there. Iraqis criticize certain Washington decisions and embassy strategy. Few, though, see any merits in abandonment.

In both Washington and Baghdad, administrations will come and go. Scandals will happen. Prosecutors will demand accountability. Courts will rule. The innocent get exonerated, and the guilty pay a price. In no case, though, should Iraq be treated a template for cynical politics. Twenty-five million Iraqis deserve better. So do U.S. servicemen taking extraordinary risks, more than 2,000 making the ultimate sacrifice, not only for Iraq’s freedom and liberty, but also U.S. national security. For those to whom inside-the-Beltway games are paramount, some serious soul searching is in order.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of The Middle East Quarterly. He has spent 20 months in Iraq, all but three months outside the U.S. security zone.



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