The Haunted Temple

Above – The Euphrates looking north and west. 

Our Iraqi friends told us that there was an ancient temple, cursed & haunted by a gin/ghost nearby, so of course we had to go see it.  It sounds like the beginning of a ghost movie.  You know the story line.  The local guys warn us re the ghost.  We don’t believe in ghosts and boldly go.  The ghost catches everybody one-by-one.  It didn’t work out that way because there really are no ghosts, but maybe the gin got us after all.  It was a lot farther away than we thought, over wrenching roads.  But when we finally got there the view of the Euphrates was beautiful and the place interesting.

Below is the temple mound

Unfortunately, our hosts really didn’t know much about the site.   They told me that it was not only that they didn’t know, but that it was unknown.   Archaeologists had not properly studied the place.  There had been some looting, however, and they did send some shards to Baghdad to be studied.   They told me that the shards were Assyrian and said that they were from around 2000 BC.  This means they are from the middle bronze age, what they call the old Assyrian period, when the Assyrians were establishing trade routes, but before they established their empire.  But I don’t know if the information was reliable. 

I studied ancient history, but I really don’t know much re the practical work of archeology.  The site looked to me like the remains of an ancient city with maybe a ziggurat making up the highest point.  The soil underfoot was not like the nearby soil.   My guess (and it is only a guess) is that this is a multi-layered ancient city.   Around here, they built with mud brick.  When the bricks wore out and the city filled with trash, they simply leveled the buildings and built on top.  Over the course of centuries, the cities rose about the neighboring landscape.  Archeologists can dig into the mounds and date the artifacts according to layers.  Ancient Troy had nine layers.  When Heinrich Schliemann dug into the mound, he thought he found Priam’s treasure.   He was mistaken – wrong level – but he did open the site to further exploration.

Below – this guy was interested in history and told us what local people knew re the place.

Someday, I suppose, they will excavate this mound.  It doesn’t seem like a very important place, but in ancient history you never know.   Sometimes seemingly small discoveries cause paradigm shifts in how we view history.  I saw lots of shards of pottery, pieces of bone and what looked like a shearing knife, but I have no idea if these things are ancient remains, the debris of somebody’s goat grab from last year or some of each.

Someday, I suppose, they will excavate this mound.  It doesn’t seem like a very important place, but in ancient history you never know.   Sometimes seemingly small discoveries cause paradigm shifts in how we view history.  I saw lots of shards of pottery, pieces of bone and what looked like a shearing knife, but I have no idea if these things are ancient remains, the debris of somebody’s goat grab from last year or some of each.

MRAPs, Travel & Detainees

MRAPs can resist IED explosions, but they are very heavy and uncomfortable to ride in.  You feel every bump, the air conditioning cannot keep the vehicle even reasonably cool on sunny days and there is no room to stretch out your feet.  I bet they will have to come up with a replacement for this vehicle, one that can go off road without making an omelet of everybody sitting in the back.

We went to see a police station.  In the jail they had some terrorists they had recently caught. I was happy to for the diligence of the local authorities.  I don’t understand these guys.  Some brag that they would gladly kill people like me along with dozens of the local children given a chance. I take no pleasure in seeing these guys in jail and I avoid going in if I can.  They are mostly young, stupid guys.   Some older, clever bad-guy has convinced them to do this evil thing and has ruined their lives and destroyed their futures.  It is sad all around.  The face of evil is not always ugly or easily identified.

Of course we have different sorts of terrorists.  The really bad ones are usually foreign fighters from various other countries around the Middle East.   They are professional.  Life has become shorter and much more difficult for them in Iraq and this is good.   Their goal is to hurt Americans and they will go where they think they can do so easiest.  If not here or Afghanistan, it might be Europe or America.   They are just bad and every one of them killed or captured in Iraq is one that won’t be plying his nefarious trade elsewhere.  I have no regrets about them getting what they deserve.

The Iraqis involved in this sort of thing are often sadder cases.  They are usually dumb young men, whose families really had no use for them or, more cruelly but correctly stated, they had more value as dead martyrs than live losers.   Many don’t seem to have actually figured out the real meaning of what they were getting into.  As the insurgency increasing overlaps with ordinary crime, they are coming more and more to resemble young gang members.   I am really glad that they are taken out of society and put where they can cause no harm, but the whole thing is a human tragedy on all sides and I cannot feel triumphant or vindicated in most cases.   I wouldn’t make a good judge.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Below are coats of arms painted on the plywood walls of Camp Rawah

It always amuses me that private businesspeople come to government officials for advice about business issues.  What do guys who work for the government, who never met a payroll and have retirements backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government know about the risks & rewards of business?

Some authorities & businessmen in Baghdadi were at odds with a general contractor who does jobs around there and on Al Asad.   They all asked us (the Marines and me) to intercede.   In the interests of literally keeping the peace, we did.

The big complaints involved the contractor not hiring enough local guys, not buying enough from local vendors and not paying either vendors or workers on time.  It reminded of the ward/union boss problems you might face in an old industrial establishment.  I could almost hear the familiar accents.  I was “protected”  by Longshoremen’s Local 815 when I loaded cement in Milwaukee (we inland residents loading cement onto flatbed trucks and railroad cars were longshoremen, BTW, because our products arrived on the waters of the Kinnickinnic River.)  Those guys with the big forearms would have understood this situation.

Below – More coats of arms

We repeated a few platitudes and praise for all participants and the local guys went at it.   It was evident that the biggest single problem was the lack of a reliable banking function.  This is a cash-only-economy.  Workers and contractors are paid in actual currency, which is sometimes hard to get and move in large quantities.  Sometimes payments were late because there just was no cash available.   One of the Baghdadi guys said that Warka Bank was soon to open a branch in Baghdadi – WITH an ATM.  As the significance of this portentous development sunk in, attitudes softened.

After a couple hours it was clear that the problem was not really one of blatant bad faith or dishonesty, but just a failure to communicate.   One of the Baghdadi guys said as much lamenting that when the contractor comes to town, “he doesn’t stop by and pay his respects.”   Now I was picturing Marlon Brando in “the Godfather.”

So much of business is just relationships with people.  We pretend we behave rationally and we often convince ourselves that we do, but we don’t.   Something like conspicuously paying respects can mean the difference between smooth coasting and crashing on the rocks, between deals done and deals lost, around here maybe even the difference between living and dying.    

The lesson here is that people will often work things out among themselves if they are provided a safe venue and someone perceived as a powerful neutral party (like the Marines & me) who flatters one side and then the other and tells them how reasonable they are.  Maybe the Wisdom of Solomon comes mostly from just having Solomon’s job… and the patience to listen for a long time to everybody’s problems. 

String of Emeralds

It is not a surprise that Iraqis have plans to hold back their advancing desert and control the clouds of dust and I am glad that they “stole” my idea before I even had it.  We had an exciting time talking to like minded Iraqis.   All the differences of culture and history melted away when we talked about how to get trees to grow in the desert, hold back the sands and conserve water resources.   I guess I am a little nerdy that way, but so were my Iraqi friends.

Below – Outstanding in their field.  This is the experimental tree farm near Anah.  I am standing in front of a seven year old pistachio tree.   There are also olives, dates, poplars, cedars and pines.  So far, the olives, dates and pistachios are most successful.

Plans to set up a string of oases were put on hold by the many conflicts Iraq suffered and provoked over the last generation.  The old man I talked to got his agricultural education in Belgium a long time ago.   He lamented the lost time and the encroaching desert, but what he felt most acutely was the isolation.  Iraqi scientists lost contact with the rest of the world, during the Saddam tyranny and sanctions.   They were unable to properly contribute to and benefit from the advance of knowledge in preserving arid lands, so their level of expertise is more than twenty years old.  A lot has happened since then.

For example, the Iraqi scientist explained that the Chinese had done a lot of practical research in controlling moving sand dunes.  Sand dunes can swallow fields and whole villages.  Dunes are almost impossible to hold back by physical means alone.   You can build all the walls you want and they just crawl over.  Just shaping a dune with bulldozers is a waste of time; planting vegetation on moving sand is ineffective.  A combination of physical and biological means, however, can make hold them in place, or at least slow their movement. 

We talked about the dust.   As I mentioned in an earlier post, I suspected that the dust we experience in Anbar is not part of the natural environment and that properly managed and conserved land would not produce these sorts of dust storms.   The Iraqi scientist confirmed this.  They had figures that showed the effects of land management on the dust.   (The texts were in Arabic, but they assured me that is what they said.)  And they had a simple plan to counteract the worst of the problem. 

Below – the guy with the blue stripped shirt is the honcho of the project.   

The Iraqis want to do what we did.   During the great depression and the dust bowl, plans were made to plant a series of windbreaks from Canada to Mexico.   They never succeeded in finishing the whole plan, but the windbreaks did help moderate the erosion problem.   They experimented with trees that would grow on the bleak, windswept plains.    One of the relics of this is the Denbigh Experimental Forest in North Dakota, which was established in 1931 and is still growing today in a place where trees had not grown before since the end of the last ice age.  It is only around one square mile, but after 77 years, you might call it a success.

The Iraqis I talked to would like to plant a series of oases all across the desert around 20km apart.  They told me that they estimated that it would cost around $300,000 each to establish plantations the size of the one I saw near Anah.  They require irrigation and care until established, but once established they are more or less self sufficient.  As their experience grows and they see which trees do best in the environment, presumably the survivability will improve.  

Lots of countries have challenges of dry lands.   Many see shortages of clean water as the biggest predicament of the next century.   Now that the dark days of the Saddam times are finished, Iraqis can take advantage of what others have learned.  And when they share their knowledge with the rest of the world, we all we be better for it.

Our job, more specifically Dennis Neffendorf’s job, will be to find contacts and put our Iraqi friends back in touch to the extent we can help.   My guess is that tree nerds and conservationists around the world will be excited and want to renew these contacts. 

It will be an easy sell.

Again with Anah

Several members of the ePRT and representative of the RCT made a follow up visit to Anah, since I promised the mayor that I would come back with some experts to address particular things we had discussed.  It is a follow up.  Some of this entry will be similar to my entry re a couple weeks ago. Bear with me.

Below is one of my colleagues.   His firm (RTI) gave him that gear.  I think it is Wehrmacht surplus.  It may have been a joke.  It is the Darth Vader gear and the black color soaks up the hot Iraqi sun.

After Al Qaim, Anah is the best run city in our AO.   Some of the reasons are clear.  Anah’s mayor is someone who is competent, honest and who loves his city. The people of Anah mostly have come from someplace else, if for no other reason than that Anah physically moved around twenty years ago when the waters of Lake Qadisiya inundated the old city site.  They are less tied to tribal loyalties and tradition than the inhabitants of most other areas in Anbar.

Below – Anah mosque.

During our last visit, the mayor mentioned that Anah do not suffer the energy problems endemic across Iraq.   I asked the mayor some follow up questions about how they do it.  Like every other city in Anbar, Anah draws power from nearby Hadithah Dam and like every other city in Anbar; it does not get enough to satisfy full demand 24/7 and must rely on local generation capacity.    At this point Anah differs from all the others in that the authorities meter the electricity and charge for it.   This both controls demand and increases supply by encouraging and paying for new capacity.

A contrasting example reveals contours of the situation.  The city council chairman in Hit, who cried to us about how the lack of electrical power was making the people of his city suffer and demanded that WE do something to solve his problem, told me that the people of Hit already pay what he considered a lot for electricity; they pay a flat rate of 2000 dinar.  With 2000 dinar, you can buy four cans of Coca-Cola equivalent at the market down the street, BTW.   Of course, a flat rate does nothing to encourage wise use and a flat rate that low, which most people avoid paying anyway, is a joke.   Unfortunately, it is a bad joke and it is told everyday across Iraq, but not in Anah.   The Mayor of Anah told me that a family in his city pays between 10,000 and 20,000 dinar a month AND it is a variable rate.    He does the same thing with water.  People get a basic amount free and after that pay a variable rate.

One weakness of Anah is its lack of bench strength.   Al Qaim has an excellent mayor, but he also has attracted and developed talented associates.   There are many people who could carry on.  Anah still depends too much on one heartbeat.   A related weakness is the dependence on the mayor’s political leadership in general.  The mayor is a hands-on kind of guy who knows and is involved in all the projects going on in his community.  Many of these projects should not be managed by government at any level.   To his credit, the mayor understands this too.

Below – ePRT team member in Anah

We revisited some of the big projects such as the dairy farm, chicken operation, fish hatchers and ecological restoration (which I willl talk about in a future post).   We met some experts who were waiting for us at the projects and the mayor shared his vision of Anah as a center for agricultural and agricultural innovation.    One of the experts told us that Iraq has once produced enough chicken to satisfy 95% of the domestic demand.  Today that statistic is reversed, with Iraqi production accounting for around 5% of demand.  Iraqis are very fond of chicken, so this is important.   Everybody agreed that Anah could become a center for food production and that they have already made many of the first steps.  Unfortunately, so far this has been an all government sponsored enterprise. 

The Mayor said that he prefers private investment and that he hoped that sometime soon that private investment would take over.  For the time being, however, there is no private investment screaming to invest in Anah and the city might have to go through a kind of socialist stage.  Given the small size and local nature of this activity, Anah may avoid some of the most pernicious aspects of state sponsored enterprise and with any luck the politician can and will get out of the business at the earliest opportunity.

In the distance from the agricultural projects we could see the edge of Reyanah.  It will not be long before Anah and Reyanah will merge.   Reyanah is growing rapidly with influx and natural increase from the local Jughafi tribe.  The two cities have significantly differently problems and populations.  It will provide an interesting challenge for all involved.

Rawah is another interesting study in contrasts.   Rawah is a 45 minute MRAP drive north and west of Anah.  A drive in a normal car at a normal speed would get you there in fifteen minutes. We refer to the area as Rawah/Anah, but the two jurisdictions could not be more different.   The mayor is a man of substance; he evidently weighs more than 300 lbs.  He is jolly, laughing inappropriately – in a Jabba the Hutt style – to try to bridge over questions about his competence or honesty, but Rawah is a depressing place despite the advantages of its physical setting and in the surrounding countryside, which include excellent soil, access to water and a beautiful natural location.  The mayor has focused on agriculture and tourism as the keys to his city’s future, but has taken no steps to encourage or facilitate either of these things except to ask Coalition Forces to build a hotel for the city.   CF declined the opportunity.   Eventually Rawah’s natural gifts and its location between a thriving Al Qaim and a probably soon to be thriving Anah will come into play.  Perhaps the people can either get new leadership or trump the bad leadership with their energy.    

Political leaders really cannot create jobs or prosperity.  They can foster the conditions that will allow the people to do that for themselves, and some do it better than others.   They can also be strong barriers to progress when they don’t do their jobs right.   Iraq has examples of both kinds of leaders.  I believe the good leadership and the energy of the people will determine the future, but the bad guys will be with us always too.   

In other words, Iraq will become a normal country in more ways.

Foreigners Loving America … or Not

We were canc’d for our trip to Al Qaim by bad weather, so I am stuck at Al Asad w/o any new Iraqi stories to tell.   But I still can produce blog entries.

After Iraq I will go back to my job in public diplomacy.  I have been thinking about that in my spare time and when I think I write.  These are just my thoughts about some of the big trends.   We will soon be in a new administration and some people expect a big change in our image overseas.  I don’t.  Not in the long term.  We will get a bounce in January as everybody welcomes the new president, but it will be ephemeral.  I worked for Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.  The only thing I have noticed about opinions of our presidents is that people always seem to like the last president better than the current one.  I have seen more continuity than change in both our policies and our image.  Many of the trends are long term. British Lord Palmerston cynically noted that, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they have only permanent interests.”  I find that depressing, but it is true that what we are will trump what we say in the long run.  

We were never as popular as some people remember nor are we as unpopular now as some people think.  Foreigners usually claim that they like the idea of America in general, but the often don’t like much about anything in particular about its current manifestation.  This is a long term problem.  On the other hand, they also say that they don’t like the current American government, but they like most Americans.  It is just a very complex situation.  The overall American reputation has clearly suffered under George W. Bush, but is our reputation so dependent on one man? Can Obama or McCain change that?

 I have been watching America’s image overseas for more than twenty-five years.  What I have observed is that some things have changed more than others. We have never been widely loved by the so-called intelligencia overseas, with a few exceptions, such as in Eastern Europe.  I was there.  I remember.  But during the Cold War their criticism could go only so far. European pacifists might claim that America and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent, but they knew they were lying. Demonstrations in those days were a kind of burlesque theater, with nice looking props and good displays of pseudo-emotion but not much real substance. They were well orchestrated, often partially funded by the KGB and featuring lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Euro-lefties wanted to harass and weaken the U.S., but not so much that we couldn’t defend them from the power of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to everyone, although many now claim to have anticipated it.  With the benefit of hindsight, they can clearly see the cracks that were not apparent at the time. It took the world several years to figure out that it really had happened and that consequently the U.S. was unbound and the world’s only superpower.  A lot of books were written about it with about a five year time lag.  The French called us a hyper-power back in the 1990s, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.  

During the Cold War, U.S. power was balanced and constrained by a nearly peer competitor in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Evil Empire, the U.S. was free to use its power.  In some ways, it was almost compelled to do something.  The excuse that U.S. action would provoke an overwhelming Soviet response was removed. It was disquieting.  

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz bitterly complained to then Secretary of State James Baker that the U.S. would never have dared attack Iraq if it was still a client of the powerful Soviet Union, and he was right, but that had changed by 1990.  

The U.S. also never would have intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo had the Soviet Union still been standing.  We would not have been able to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq. The Cold War created caution and a stability because thermonuclear incineration always lurked only around a half hour away. All of today’s leaders grew up in this environment; it seemed permanent. Then, it was gone like the snows of past winters.  It was a welcome relief, but many people had grown comfortable with the constraint.

Historians and political scientist have long understood that if any single power emerges unchallenged it will be balanced by others, usually sooner rather than later and usually in by coalition of the weaker powers. In the 1990s, pundits and experts hopefully and probably sincerely declared that the U.S. was immune to the sorts of forces that had affected great powers throughout all of recorded history. We talked about the end of history.  What did that even mean? 

Our intervention during the first Iraq War did not provoke great backlash (although it provoked a lot more than many recall today) because it was dressed up as a worldwide effort and – more importantly – it was a conservative and self-limiting enterprise.  The stated and real goals were to reestablish the previous status quo and leave everything – and everyone – else more or less intact. Bosnia and Kosovo made the Russians and the Greeks lividly angry and disrupted the NATO alliance, but we had the Western Europeans mostly on our side because we were doing their work for them and they were mildly embarrassed that they couldn’t clean their own house.  

These adventures did sow the seeds of future troubles. In a small but telling episode in 2000, the French refused to sign onto Albright’s pet project, The Community of Democracies, despite its innocuous declaration that democracy was a good thing.  The only thing they really didn’t like about it was that it was greatly favored by America. 

George Bush blundered into a growing mess. We were already being accused to being unilateral and arrogant, with some justification. Bush made it worse. He was inexperienced in foreign affairs and it showed. Bush lacked the Clinton duplicity. Clinton had no trouble parsing words and letting people believe what they wanted to hear in them. I say this with admiration more than criticism.  Sometimes the sugar coating is all it takes to swallow the bitter pill.  For example, Clinton rejected Kyoto and objected to the land mine treaty, but nobody could really tell. Clinton never had any intention acting on these sorts of things, but he was wise enough to obfuscate. Bush told the Texas truth and that doesn’t go over very well in Paris salons.  

9/11 created a very interesting situation, one that should be studied closer. Except in places like the Palestinian territories were people openly celebrated, most of the world was sympathetic, but if you look closely at this sympathy you see the seeds of something else. America for the first time in its history was seen as a victim. The attacks seemed to humble the U.S. and bring it down to the level of ordinary countries. Temporarily, the U.S. was less threatening as the world’s superpower and in need of help from others.  This didn’t last. Any American president would have reacted aggressively to the attacks. We are an aggressive people, after all, which is how we got to be so powerful. But the Bush Administration and especially Donald Rumsfeld talked a little tougher than was useful. They also made a big mistake in September 2001. The U.S. got all kinds of offers of help from allies and friends. We could have formed a broad coalition of allies who really had autonomy. However, these kinds of coalitions are messy from the military and logistical point of view. Rumsfeld understood that we did not NEED help from the military point of view and that potential helpers would probably get in the way. He was right from the narrow military point of view, but very wrong from a political one. I am not saying we acted completely alone, but the “my way or highway” attitudes came through a bit too often.

I have to add in my personal observation re public diplomacy.  In the 1990s, we unilaterally disarmed our information operations.  We were told that the Cold War was over and our sort of work was not so much needed anymore.  I saw it happening.  We closed our libraries and cut our public affairs staffs.  I had to close my library in Krakow; we got almost no speaker programs; we closed the consulate in Poznan.  And this was happening all over the world.  The number of officers in public affairs dropped by almost half and almost nobody got promoted from around 1993-2000.  It was a devastating time.  A lot of good officers reached their mandatory time in class and were kicked out of the FS.   In better times they would have moved ahead to bigger and better things.  My point is that after 9/11, when we needed a robust public affairs effort, we just did not have enough people or resources in the field to get the message out because of the cuts.  Colin Powell worked hard to make up for the deficit, with his diplomatic readiness initiative, but it takes 7-10 years to develop an experienced FSO.  We lost a generation of officers and it hurt.  Well, back to the main story.

A wiser political point of view would have been to consult and bring allies along in the process to bind them to the joint enterprise. The alliance would have been clumsier, but more robust. I lay the blame for not doing this at the feet of the President. George Bush was too inexperienced in international politics.  Of course, it is really easy to see this now.  In times of emergency thing are not as clear.  (BTW – Clinton was inexperienced too, but he was lucky to fall into the most benign international environment in history. That started to change in the late 1990s.  International experience is helpful.) Instead he took the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld. They were indeed correct – to a point, but they were solving the current problem at the expense of a future solution.  A wise and experienced president would have looked beyond today’s solution to see tomorrow’s problem.  

I don’t have the time here to talk about the further degeneration that happened as a result of Iraq, but I believe that the seeds of trouble were sown in September-October of 2001 and not a year later. I am not sure that we could have brought along the Germans or the French, who opposed us for their own domestic political reasons, but it would have been better to start from a stronger base.  

As a tangent, I believe that our evident victory in Iraq may make us ostensibly LESS popular because it will show that American strength can win even against an”unbeatable” opponent in the heart of the Middle East. But although the talk will remain acrimonious, maybe even get worse, many of the local power brokers will behave better in the presence of strength than they would have had we been defeated. It reminds me of when I see eagles fly. They are often surrounded and harassed by small birds. After it is all said and done, however, it is better to be the eagle than the pigeon.  

My original question was whether or not a new president can get us out of this mess. MY answer is that the American image problem goes way beyond one man, even the president. The meta problem is U.S. power. The president can mitigate the problem, but not by very much. On the plus side, much anti-Americanism is still often burlesque. I have traveled all around and not run into too much of it in REAL life. If Americans behave reasonably well, they are treated reasonably well. Some people have told me that foreigners are nice to me because they want my money. I don’t really believe that but don’t care anyway. If $5 can rent loyalty it is sure a small price and any hatred that can be expunged for a few dollars doesn’t run very deep. Beyond that, our products sell overseas and our investments are welcomed. Thankfully, there is still more sound and fury to anti-Americanism than substance.  That is not to downplay the menace of anti-Americanism.  It constrains our policy choices in some very real ways.  We can mitigate it: we should mitigate it, but we cannot eliminate it.  Every place a person in the world turns, he finds Americans, often giving advice. It is no-doubt annoying. Ironically, our image will improve to the extent that our power wanes and/or as other rival centers of power emerge. We can see that happening already in the case of China. Significant “anti-Chinese” sentiment is building up among the chattering classes because of their positions in Darfur or Tibet and their heavy handed management of investments in Africa will soon create a further backlash.

When American is compared to an ideal, we suffer; when compared to something in the real world, we do okay.

The sad fact of human nature is that everybody has to have somebody to dislike and blame for their problems.  It doesn’t really matter if it is true or even if they believe it deep down.  The political leaders of some crappy little country don’t want to take the blame for the bad conditions created by their policies.  Easier to blame the ubiquitous Americans.  Even in a well-run country lots of things go wrong.  Need someone to blame?  The U.S. has served this role for a good many years and we will continue to do that, although we may soon have a little help from rising powers.

Reservoir Dogs

Tell those terrorists we’re coming … and hell’s coming with us.

No further comment.  We just liked the picture and it reminded everybody of that movie. 

60 Minutes

I understand the 60 Minutes episode I saw today about Hadithah originally aired in March 2007 and I suppose it reflected the situation at the time.  But it is amazing how much things have changed and some mention of that in the follow up segment might have been nice. 

The 60 Minutes segment shows the bad old days in Hadithah.  They said that most people in Hadithah are hostile to coalition forces.  Back then maybe; today things are different.  I walk through Hadithah a lot.  If people are hostile, they don’t show it.   People smile and wave at us.  I frequently stop to talk to shopkeepers and pedestrians.   Not only have I encountered no hostility, but many people thank us for the security we have brought to the place.  I have featured pictures of my walks through Hadithah on many occasions. 

Sometimes dumpy; no longer scary

The 60 Minutes episode is literally historical in that it shows history and a world that has changed.  Clearly the 60 Minutes team wanted to make things look as bad as possible.  The pictures of all the Marines were grainy black and white.  That is the old journalist propaganda trick.   Say what you want.  Show the picture and it trumps the words.  Nobody takes black and white photos anymore.  You know that 60 Minutes took color photos and made them black and white.

And they feature John Murtha.  What else do I need to say?

A tragedy happened in Hadithah during a complicated and dangerous time.  Those involved will be forever scarred.  60 Minutes could have tried a little more fairness.  Anytime you see a black and white photo that isn’t historical or something from an Ansel Adams collection, you know somebody is manipulating you.

My Iraqi pictures are color.  They show you in full color what you see today when you go to Hadithah or places nearby.  It is not paradise, but much better.  I wish journalists would do some follow up on their stories, but that wouldn’t fit their story lines.   Sometimes their omissions are important.

BTW – Sorry I wrote fast.  The 60 Minutes just annoyed me and I had to grab some pictures I already had.  Next time I go to Hadithah I will take a full sequence.

Alternative Energy: A Bridge Too Far?r

Below is a contraption powered by an old Ford engine pumping irrigation water from the Eurphrates.   Doing the job for 70+ years.

I knew about it & promised myself that I would avoid the trap, but I still fell into it.   In some ways it is the flip side of the confidence and sense of purpose I needed to do the job here.  When you have the power to spend the government’s money and the broadly defined duty to help rebuild or even just build a whole region it is easy to use the discretion you have to do what you think it right – and be sure you are right.

Alternative energy has been an interest of mine since I was in high school more than thirty years ago  I really do believe that we have to transition into cleaner non-carbon-based energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear.  When I got to Iraq, I made alternative energy sources a preference.  I always asked if we could use solar or wind.  I was not alone in this.  I think many of us were beguiled by this possibility.   CERP money was spent on solar street lights.  We put extra money into QRF for alternatives.  I think we all felt good about it.  The people back home think it is great, so we get confirmation all around.   We feel virtuous.

But such things are not always appropriate everyplace.  I have begun to notice complaints when I do my foot patrols.  People look with a jaundiced eye on our solar street lights.  They would prefer electricity nearer their homes.   They often know the price of each light.  And the lights are not attractive.  Beyond that, the rapidly developing technologies will probably make them obsolete too soon.  I still believe in alternative energy, but I think we made a mistake in pushing it.  It was the trap of arrogance and the trap of applying my own cultural preferences and prejudices to the problems of people with different priorities and needs.

I am sure that I could make a very logical argument for alternative energy in Western Iraq.   I could win a debate on that position.  I am good with words.  But it just isn’t the best solution in this here and now place.   The time is not ripe.   There are practical problems.

We have problems with dust, for example.  We get plenty of sun in Anbar and even more dust.  Dust settles on everything, including solar panels where it tends to stay in the absence of rain to wash it off.   The Anbaris have very little in terms of a maintenance culture.  It is one of the things we are trying to help them with, but they are not there yet.  Solar power is dispersed and decentralized.   It presents a particular maintenance challenge that I don’t think we/they can properly meet, at least in the near term.

The lesson I have learned, or should I say relearned, is that you cannot always get what you want – even if you are convinced it is right.  And having the power of the government to back you up exacerbates the mistakes you can make.   I guess the old saying goes, “To err is human, but to really screw up you need government support.”   Fortunately, I don’t think it is that bad.  We never pushed this program to the exclusion of everything else.  It was always in the nature of an experiment.   It was maybe even a good idea.   We have some success.  I – we – just got a little too enthusiastic about it and I am a little embarrassed.  Lesson learned – again.

I still think the alternatives are the way of the future.  When I build a new house, I will install solar and use the site to advantage, but I can do that because I have already satisfied other needs.   In many other situations, we will still need to rely on the “old oily energy” as a bridge us to the new.   We will get there faster if we recognize reality.

Prospering in Spite of the Politicians’ “Best Efforts”

I spoke to merchants and pedestrians along the main street in Hit.  It was encouraging to hear their stories too.  Many of the businesses were new.  The proprietors told me that they had been in business a few months or that they had closed down and reopened recently.  Their complaints were no longer about security, as they had been only a short time before.  Now they had the usual prosaic problems such as traffic congestion, lack of electricity and general difficulty doing business around the dilapidated infrastructure of this city on the Euphrates.   If you sum up the complaints, you could say that their political leaders were failing to provide the basic building blocks of prosperity.

The picture shows a bicycle repair shop in Hit.  The best bikes sell for 85,000 dinar, around $85.  The proprietor told us that he was only 16 years old, but he had a talent for fixing bikes.  It is his labor and skills that he brings into the partnership.  His partner is an older, richer guy who provides the coin to keep the operation going.   Our sixteen-year-old friend said he was happy with the arrangement and hopeful for the future.  He had been in business for around three months and business was good.  Having a business based on the rugged & rubble strewn streets of Hit, he gets to repair lots of bent wheels and flat tires. 

We went to see the political leaders and met the problem.   The head of the town council greeted us with a question: “What do you have to give me?”   When I reminded him that we were seeking a sustainable partnership where he would work WITH us, he promised to make a detailed list of all the things he wanted us to give him.  There was an uncomfortable moment as we explained that we had no intention of just filling orders.  It was his town.  We would help; we would not do the job of the local authorities.  

The most frustrating people are those who are both indolent and demanding.

I should not be entirely negative. We are working well with some parts of the city.  Below constructing drainage in Hit with help of USG funds (CSP).  It just could be so much better.

Hit is the worst of major towns in my district.    The tragedy of Hit is that the people, the merchants and mechanics I met, were hard working and willing to take on more responsibility, but they were held back by the incompetence, cravenness and sometimes downright dishonesty of their political leaders.   The difference that good (or even just not bad) leadership can make is astonishing.  It is hard to hold back progress.  We see gains in Al Qaim, Anah, Hadithah and now even in Rutbah, which sits in the middle of nowhere getting little in terms of funding.   Hit’s satellite city of Kubaysah is even doing well.   I wonder if the people of Hit can trump their leadership and make the transition to prosperity.

In general, this week’s meetings (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and travels provoked both hope and gloom.  I am filled with admiration for the brave Iraqis who stood up against violence and terrorism when there was no guarantee or even probability that they would win.  They have seen enough suffering and death for many lifetimes and yet still they persist.   When I talk to the merchants and businesses people, literally rebuilding Iraq, I cannot help feel joy at the resilience of the human spirit.   Yet they all stumble over the pernicious legacy of dependence and dishonesty left over from the socialism and tyranny of the former regime.    I am confident that these problems will be just be speed bumps on the road to prosperity, but we will certainly suffer a few more jolts.