2009 January 07 Wednesday
Iraq A Story Of Diminished Expectations

The end of US involvement in Iraq is in sight.

In Mahmudiyah the drawdown began almost a year ago. As hard as the Americans tried to fix the place, it's still nothing to brag about. The economy, although improving, remains crippled. Public services are practically nonexistent. Courts and government offices are open, but schools lack working toilets, and teachers are so bad that parents scrape money together for private tutors. Sewage floods some side streets, and telephone landlines fail as often as not. The big government hospital is chronically short of medical supplies; late last month, a man scoured the town's drugstores for surgical thread because the hospital had none for his wife, who was undergoing a Caesarean delivery. "The military is, in some cases, the only government people see," says Maj. John Baker, who advised Iraqi troops in rural areas near Mahmudiyah until late 2008. By normal standards the town is a mess—but it's less dangerous than it was, and at this point that's about the best anyone can expect.

"Iraqi good enough". Corrupt and inefficient just like the rest of the Middle East. Hey, if so many countries aren't Jeffersonian democracies this is not just by chance or momentum of past rulers.

The situation is summed up in a phrase you hear among American combat troops and trainers: "Iraqi good enough." The term expresses their resignation—realism, they'd call it—about the limits of what America can accomplish in Iraq. They say it when an Iraqi Army unit has no choice but to buy fuel for its Humvees on the private market because Iraq's military-supply system is so corrupt and inefficient. Or when the persistent shortage of capable leaders forces Iraqi battalions to function with only half the number of officers they require. Or when Iraqi soldiers fall apart in a senior officer's absence because that's the way it goes in a top-down society. The concept has spread to American Embassy staffers, who invoke it when speaking of the near-impossible task of reforming the decrepit old welfare-state economy. "Good enough" may not live up to Americans' hopes for Iraq, but at this point it describes the place we're likely to leave behind in 2011—if things stay on track. "It's a hell of a lot better than I thought we were going to get four years ago fighting in Anbar, or two years ago in a civil war," says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl. "The high side may not be that high, but the costs of failure are severe."

Hey, all those Anbar insurgents and all the bombings of civilians and soldiers served the purpose of lowering expectations. That's a pretty expensive and painful way to lower expectations. If only dreamers could have been more realistic about the prospects for Arab democracy going in.

Iraq will have elections (at least for a while) but will otherwise be very similar to the nondemocratic states in the Middle East. Lots of political prisoners, corruption, lack of rule of law.

America's expectations have plunged. Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East. The government will no doubt be repressive—not as bad as when Saddam Hussein was in charge, but even now Iraq's jails hold thousands of prisoners who have been held for months without hearing the charges against them. Corruption is rampant, in part because the state isn't strong enough to haul the biggest wrongdoers into court without touching off a rebellion. Residents of Mahmudiyah sarcastically call their mayor's neighborhood Owja, after Saddam's hometown—the lights stay on there even when the power is out everywhere else. And Tehran already has far more influence in the new Iraq than it did under Saddam.

We helped Iran expand its influence. Jewish neoconservative intellectuals sure damaged Israel's security.

In Iraq 2007 was bad enough to make 2008 look good. That's the upside of a bad year.

The increase in security has been striking in Baghdad, where shops are reopening and concrete barriers are being removed. But the surge did push insurgents north to cities like Mosul and Baquba, where attacks are still common but increasingly focused on Iraqi security forces rather than civilians. To be sure, insurgents are still able to carry out high-profile suicide bombings.

According to estimates from independent organizations, between 6,700 and 8,000 Iraqis were killed in attacks in 2008, more than a 50 percent drop compared with 2007. According to the Associated Press, 314 US troops are believed to have died in Iraq in 2008 compared with 904 servicemen and women killed in 2007.

The Kurd-Arab conflict could heat up.

It is simmering and could erupt if Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) don't come to an agreement over Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that is under central government authority but claimed by the Kurds as their historic capital. Added to the mix is a large Iraqi Turkmen minority backed by Turkey. A referendum to decide who should control the city has been postponed twice, and the UN has so far been unable to find an acceptable formula for a political settlement that would pave the way for a vote.

Will the Kurds and Arabs come to blows? Or will there be a de facto partition while the Kurds pretend to be part of Iraq?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2009 January 07 07:04 PM  Mideast Iraq Democracy Failure

Anonymous said at January 7, 2009 7:39 PM:

I wonder how much corruption in Iraq and elsewhere compares to corruption in the United States. I think there's little doubt that there's all sorts of odd things that have went on in the financial industry which are essentially corruption but will never be legally recognized as an outright crime. I don't wish to point fingers, but the Chicago area hasn't exactly been a shining example of clean politics. It seems like politicians in that area are more likely than not to be involved in some sort of racket. There's so many "consultants" on many real estate deals that get paid that have ties to city governments that one has to wonder if this is essentially a major money laundering operation for bribery. There's other cities in the country where gambling is illegal yet there are (non Indian) casinos that operate right in the open and I'm sure they pay a lot of money to "consultants" so they can keep open. Maybe it's just that I grew up in an area with so much less corruption that I'm shocked when I see it happen.

gcochran said at January 7, 2009 10:53 PM:

"Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East."

Well, that was sure worth 700-some billion dollars and a few thousand American lives. I don't we believe we have an appropriate punishment - one severe enough - for the jackasses who got us into this, and the morons who acted as cheerleaders for it.

More research is needed.

anonymous said at January 8, 2009 1:24 AM:

Could we not take a page from Saddam's book and institute the use of a wood shredder?

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