What’s Going Right in Iraq

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Last week, the Onion offered a satirical story with a Baghdad dateline: “After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday, but said America can be proud of finishing ‘a very strong second.’ ”

Not even Michael Moore would suggest that’s about to happen.

Yet the reportage from Iraq is almost as bleak. Even as some media gurus accuse journalists of naively accepting officials’ positive spin on the war, the sweep of coverage suggests that Iraq’s occupiers have turned post-invasion chaos into a hellish nightmare and perhaps a quagmire -- and the consensus is that matters will only grow worse.

From the beginning, of course, there has been a counterpoint from those who are encouraged by what they see -- often expressed via the Internet. “As I head off to Baghdad for the final weeks of my stay in Iraq, I wanted to say thanks to all of you who did not believe the media,” Ray Reynolds, an Iowa Army National Guard medic, wrote in an e-mail forwarded to the Los Angeles Times. “They have done a very poor job of covering everything that has happened.” His e-mail cited a litany of positive changes in Iraq since the invasion, from increased immunizations and educational opportunities for children -- including, notably, girls -- to reopened hospitals, ports and improved delivery of drinking water and telephone service.


At least a few less-intimately involved observers also glimpse hope amid the televised images of 24-hour carnage, among them Christopher Hitchens, Michael Rubin, Frederick W. Kagan and Gary Schmitt.


It was a heartening story last weekend, about the huge generator being installed, piece by gigantic piece, in Baghdad. When it comes on stream in a few months, there will supposedly be more than enough energy to power all the new gadgets that liberated Baghdadis have been plugging in.

No, it wasn’t a heartening story, either. Where was this generator when it was needed, about 18 months ago? Who was supposed to be in charge of seeing to that then, and why has he or she not been summarily fired?

Much of the good news from Iraq has been qualified or worse by a downside of this kind. Thus, if they hear a bang in the night, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan can now turn over and go back to sleep: It won’t be the death squads of Saddam Hussein anymore. But this new security has given some the opportunity to decide they want to quit what they regard as the failed state that has replaced the regime.

On the other hand, there are some unambiguous gains. The Marsh Arabs, former inhabitants of the largest wetlands in the region and victims of an ecocidal assault, have seen their ancient habitat partly re-flooded. Politics has returned to the Iraqi Shiite discourse, which now has a reciprocal influence on the important debate within neighboring Iran. Iraq has been verifiably disarmed (not quite the same as taking Hussein’s or Hans Blix’s word for it) and the socially devastating epoch of Hussein-plus-sanctions (vamped on by the U.N. in its disgraceful Oil for Blood program) is over.

Democratic voices are being raised insistently, in Syria and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and though you may say this would have happened anyway, there is no doubt of what ignited the current debate.


Most important is the military traction that is being gained. One Welsh regiment of the British army recently killed more than 300 Mahdi army thugs for the loss of three soldiers: odds too painful for the boastful jihadists to take. A dangerous Osama bin Laden emulator, Abu Musab Zarqawi, imported to Iraq before the intervention, will very soon be destroyed along with his foreign infiltrators.

The U.S. armed forces are learning every day how to fight in extreme conditions, in post-rogue-state and post-failed-state surroundings, with the forces of medieval tyranny. Does anyone think this is not experience worth having, or that it will not be needed again? And does anyone want to imagine what Iraq would have looked like now if we had let it go on the way it was before? Too late and too little, to be sure, but nonetheless one of the noblest responsibilities we have ever shouldered.


As a visiting professor in Iraqi Kurdistan four years ago, I found that there were three words my University of Baghdad-trained interpreters could not translate: Debate, tolerance and compromise. The concepts did not exist in Hussein’s Iraq. When I returned to Iraq in the aftermath of war, society was changing.

I watched city council meetings in places such as Kirkuk. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens compromised on issues that spanned the languages taught in public schools to affirmative action within the police force. In the southern city of Nasiriya, taxi drivers, religious students and engineers debated the merits of federalism.

Dire predictions of civil war between ethnic and sectarian groups did not materialize, despite terrorist bombings against Shiite processions, Christian churches and Kurdish celebrations.

Iraqis complain about security but are positive about the future. They reflect optimism not only in polls but also in actions. The new Iraqi currency, issued on Oct. 15, 2003, at 2,000 Iraqi dinars to the dollar, is free of Hussein’s image. It is also free-floating, and even at the height of the April uprising and the battle for Najaf, it remained stable, trading between 1,400 and 1,500 dinars to the dollar. If Iraq is in trouble, don’t tell the Canadians: The dinar regularly outperforms the Canadian dollar on international markets.


Iraqis also express confidence with investment, which spans the country. Electricity is unreliable, so restaurateurs have invested as much as $50,000 for top-model generators. A new clothing boutique represents a $200,000 investment. There are new hotels in Najaf and Karbala. Cigarette venders have traded pushcarts for tobacco shops. Kurdish investors are constructing a cancer treatment center in Erbil. In the slums of Sadr City, houses cost $45,000, nearly double their prewar value. In the swankier district of Mansur, new houses sell for more than 10 times that amount.

No Iraqi would invest his or her life savings if they feared civil war or perpetual lawlessness.

Freedom matters. Before the war, only the top 3,000 Hussein loyalists could access the Internet. Today, more than 100,000 households have dial-up connections. This number does not reflect the thousands of young Iraqi men who surf the Web (and try to pick up women) at cafes that dot cities, small towns and villages.

During Hussein’s rule, 1 out of 6 Iraqis fled the country as refugees. Not only has there not been a mass exodus since Iraq’s liberation, but more than a million refugees have returned.

Even at the height of the insurgents’ bombing campaign, young men lined up at recruitment stations, not only for the salary but also to make Iraq a better place.

The television cameras do not lie, but they fail to give full perspective. The fiercest critics of the situation inside Iraq are those who have never been there. The coalition has made mistakes, and Iraqis are frequently frustrated at the pace of change. But they do see light at the end of the tunnel.



The war in Iraq has produced two significant military achievements, one strategic, the other operational.

The strategic success is the end of the Iraq containment policy that required a large U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War. Significant numbers of U.S. forces were tied down in an increasingly hostile country. Their effect, moreover, on Hussein’s conduct was dubious. Over the decade, the then-Iraqi leader grew ever more resistant to international demands that he open his country to weapons inspections. The current occupation of Iraq is temporary. By contrast, the containment policy required an endless commitment of forces.

There’s a second big benefit to the end of the containment policy. U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia were a constant irritant in the Muslim world, a principal reason why Bin Laden attacked the United States. Foreigners in Iraq may continue to anger Muslims and Arabs, but their hostility cannot be compared to the outrage they felt over the large U.S. presence in the birthplace of Islam.

Finally, the containment policy was tied to economic sanctions, which punished ordinary Iraqis, a fact that Hussein exploited for his own purposes. He constantly told Iraqis that the United States was responsible for the deaths of their children, for the lack of medicine and other essential supplies that, as we now know, really stemmed from his manipulation of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

It was only a matter of time before international support for the sanctions would have crumbled and killed the policy, giving Hussein a free hand to restart his weapons programs.

The operational good news coming out of Iraq was the destruction of the Mahdi army that served the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. The militia had effectively occupied the holy cities of Iraq, including the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. The conventional wisdom was that the U.S. military would be unable to expel the rebels from their redoubts without causing an explosion of anti-Americanism in the Shiite world. Yet U.S. personnel combined measured force, diplomatic negotiations and skillful deployments to retake Najaf and recover the shrines without inflicting any substantial damage on them. There was no outcry in Iraq or the Muslim world at large, and some Iraqis even took to the streets to protest Sadr’s actions. U.S. and Iraqi forces removed a threat to the development of a peaceful and democratic Iraq.



What’s gone right in Iraq? Start with the obvious: Hussein is gone. Whatever the problems in Iraq, they pale in comparison with the history of Hussein’s tyranny. Thousands upon thousands were persecuted, tortured and executed. Neighboring states were under threat and, twice, invaded at the cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties. Hussein spent massively for his own pleasure and weapons, while allowing the welfare of Iraq’s citizens to deteriorate.

Nor, as the recently released Iraq Survey Group report makes clear, was Hussein a problem of the past. The sanctions regime was collapsing, and the former Iraqi president had every reason to expect he would soon be free again to rebuild his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Waiting in the wings were Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, two predators equally involved in supporting their father’s reign of terror, domestically and internationally. No, as Arizona Sen. John McCain has put it: “The years of keeping Saddam in a box were coming to a close.... Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat.”

Removing Hussein has had wider implications as well. Since 1998, it was U.S. policy to change regimes in Iraq. Not fulfilling that goal would have reduced U.S. credibility in the region. Indeed, one reason terrorism was rising and the sanctions regime dissolving was because the U.S. was seen by its enemies as a paper tiger. And, conversely, removing Hussein led Libya’s Moammar Kadafi to get out of the WMD business and to the unraveling of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s global supply chain for nuclear weapons technology.

Less obvious, but as important for Iraq’s future, is that a clear majority of Iraqis are choosing democracy. Neither Kurds nor Shiites have opted for more radical alternatives. Kurds have remained committed to a federal state, and the Shiite public and clerical elite have repeatedly rejected attempts to push Iraq toward an Islamic regime on the lines of Iran. When given the chance to vote for local governing councils, Iraqis have regularly voted for younger and more secular candidates.

Often overlooked is that Iraqis have been busy learning the art of self-governance through hundreds of local, city and regional councils. Has it all gone smoothly? No. But real progress has been made.


Iraq is never going to be a “Jeffersonian democracy.” (For that matter, the U.S. isn’t either.) But polls show that Iraqis are optimistic about democracy. If we can help provide them with security -- and defeat the insurgents -- Iraq has a good chance of creating a decent, representative government that takes its responsibilities at home and abroad seriously.