Iraq from the Bottom Up

I wrote this essay for another blog.  I am really proud that I will be a PRT leader, but for this entry I did not want to call particular attention to myself, so it is a little detached.  I include it here because it sums up a lot of what I think about Iraq (or what I think I know about Iraq.) 

All Americans – and of course Iraqis – have a stake in a successful Iraq. Past Iraqi policies of centralization resulted in terrible suffering and if we look in this same place for achievement we will be disappointed, as we have been so far. However, the ongoing turmoil and violence mask significant potential and progress if you look away from the middle.
The more I study the modern history of Iraq, the more profound my sense of tragedy. Although Iraq was cobbled together from Ottoman provinces and had no particular history as a country in its current form, the region has a long history, which I need not repeat. Just a few highlights: this is where they invented the wheel, the place where Hamurabi wrote his law code, the center of golden age of Islamic civilization. Modern Iraq sits on cultural and economic crossroads. It is/was blessed with good agricultural potential, a sophisticated and skilled population and – perhaps a dubious benefit – oil.

Until around 1970, Iraq was one of the most promising states of the Middle East, but it was infected with Baathism – which sought its models in totalitarian communism and Nazism – and then a ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Under Saddam Hussein, power was centralized, or more correctly any power that could compete with the central authorities was crushed. The Baathists had learned from Soviet communist experience that the way for the party to stay in power was to tie all local institutions to the state. They systematically destroyed or co-opted what NGOs existed. Any strong private businesses were similarly liquidated. Opponents were killed. We recognize the pattern. It has little to do with Iraq or Islam. It is the classic totalitarian power consolidation. Stalin, Mao, Hitler or Castro would understand the method.

All this would be bad enough, but Iraq has also been in a state of nearly perpetual war since 1980. In those years, the wealth of Iraq went into weapons, waste and corruption. It got even worse during the 1990s. Saddam created roadblocks to allow him and his cronies to steal money that should have gone for food or medicine. The younger generation of Iraqis is significantly less well educated and less skilled than their parents and a country that could be rich lies in ruins. Sorry for the digression, but I think it is important to remember that Iraq had a history BEFORE the U.S. got involved.

After the overthrow of Saddam, the coalition inherited this mess and exacerbated it by attempting to reestablish a centralized, top-down system. In all fairness, many Iraqis were used to top-down and uncomfortable with freedom and taking the initiative, which they had learned to fear during the long night of the Baathist. It is time for a new paradigm.
Iraq is a rich country even now. The Central government is sitting on a yearly budget of around $40 billion w/o a real capacity to spend it. It is something we rarely consider, but it takes functioning institutions to properly use money. Institutions are like pitchers. You cannot pour more into them than they can hold. Maybe the central government can better share it out a bit to the parts of Iraq that need it and can use it.

As with the successful transition of former communist countries of Eastern Europe, the key to success is decentralized power and institutions. Micro loans can help set up business that are not dependent on state corruptions – sorry – I mean corporations. Decentralized power generation can begin to bring prosperity to the countryside. NGOs can take up much of the jobs that corrupt bureaucrats do not very well. Iraqis can learn to take the initiative in their lives and regions. Americans can help, as we did in Eastern Europe, but also as in Eastern Europe, the local people must – in the end – do the job.

Americans ARE helping, however. Working with local leaders was one of the keys to the dramatic turnaround in Al Anbar province.  We have deployed provincial reconstruction teams around the country. These are led by senior State Department officers and include people experienced in AID, agriculture, business development and municipal management.  In January, President Bush announced that he was doubling the number of teams and beefing up their staffing and he is keeping his word. This is the building part of the surge. 

I still do not know if we will succeed in Iraq, although I am much more hopeful today than I was six months ago. I still consider success in Iraq crucial to our future and worth taking the risks.