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Progress Being Made in Iraq but Much Remains to Be Done - 2003-10-16

Dissatisfied with press coverage of Iraq, the Bush Administration is granting interviews to local and regional media to avoid what it calls a distorting filter.

President Bush made the case for progress in his weekly radio address. We are rebuilding Iraq's shattered economy, he said, as the introduction of a new currency indicates:

“The new currency symbolizes Iraq's reviving economy. Iraq has a strong entrepreneurial tradition, and since the liberation of that country, thousands of new businesses have been launched. Busy markets are operating in villages across the country. Store shelves are filled with goods from clothing and linens to air conditioners and satellite dishes. Free commerce is returning to the ancient region that invented banking. With our assistance, the Iraqis are building the roads and ports and railways necessary for commerce.”

All that was apparent to Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. After visiting Iraq, she says media coverage hardly reflects the reality: “We see an orderly country for the most part. We see a country in which people treat other people with decency. We see that although there are gas lines, people do not cut. They do not push. We have tons of people out at night, shopping, going to restaurants. I went to a restaurant every night. I did not stay in any compound. It is a country that slowly but surely is returning to normalcy.”

But Danielle Pletka adds there is still much to be done. If the U.S. occupation of Iraq is by no means a failure, it is a story of missed opportunities, given the size of the task: “We need to concentrate a great deal more on communications. We need to concentrate a great deal more on the kind of handicaps we have put in place by not setting up more quickly a cell phone network, by not repairing phone systems more quickly, by not allowing Iraqis more control economically, by not allowing Baghdad to have greater authority over the provinces.”

Danielle Pletka says more U.S. troops are not needed, but the ones on hand should be deployed in a different way. The first goal is to suppress the armed attacks on U.S. forces and the Iraqis associated with them: “If I were commander in chief, which I'm not, I would say that a reallocation of troops away from some of the hearts and minds activity, away from some of the simple patrolling and into more of a strong counter-insurgency position, would benefit us a great deal more and would benefit Iraqis a great deal more than the current configuration we have.”

Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution, says the U.S. military is making incremental progress in Iraq that must be measured by degrees. Tragic as it was, the latest car bomber did not reach his intended target of Iraqi Governing Council members. This contrasts with far deadlier car bombings in August.

What is happening is bad enough, says Mr. O'Hanlon, but the worst may be over as U.S. forces learn to cope: “Crime rates are still too high, but they appear at least to have somewhat leveled out. The Iraqi military and other security forces are being trained at a growing rate and are able to help us more and more with patrols. We are continuing to arrest people in the famous deck of cards, and there are very few of that original deck who are left on the street or unaccounted for. If you go through these sorts of measures, things look on balance slightly more good than bad.”

Like others, Mr. O'Hanlon is concerned about extremists entering Iraq from other countries intent on attacking Americans. Nobody seems to know how many there are or how many more will arrive. Will Iraq, as some fear, become the rallying point of international terrorists?

Mr. O'Hanlon says these jihadists operate in limited groups and show no signs of tactical innovation. They also lack a crucial ingredient: “This insurgency in Iraq does not seem to have in my eyes at least the basis for growing into a nation-wide movement because it has no appealing ideology that most of the country is going to find of any great interest to the point of risking one's life in order to be part of it. I think that there is a chance that anti-Americanism could become that ideology if we really blow the mission or if we want to stay too long.”

Mr. O'Hanlon is less confident of economic progress, though the U.S. mission has completed 13 thousand reconstruction projects and reopened thousands of schools: “Certainly Secretary Rumsfeld uses factoids to say how many businesses have opened and how many schools have opened, hospitals and so forth. And Mr. Bremer and others make the same case, and I have no reason to doubt their data. But I think the broader reality is that things are not nearly as good as they should be or as we need to make them. Unemployment is still way too high. Electricity levels are way too low, and those two facts alone are reason for serious worry.”

If security can be established, Iraqis hold great promise, says Noah Feldman, professor of law at New York University and a consultant to the Iraqi constitutional process. Iraqis want to avoid the kind of one-man rule that paralyzed the country under Saddam Hussein:

“To the extent that we are able to guarantee basic law and order, which is a condition for ordinary life to go on, there are many, many Iraqis who know that the only way to avoid falling into a Saddam-like situation, where there is one guy running the whole country, is to develop some democratic institutions and really stick with them. And we are not hearing a lot of prominent voices calling for a theocracy or a government by clerics. We are not hearing a lot of people calling for the breakup of the country. Instead we are hearing people calling for a federal Iraq with a democratic governance system that works.”

Professor Feldman and others stress the need to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis as soon as possible. It is their country, and they must run it. Their political system will not be a carbon copy of the American one, nor should it be. In fact, if the U.S. occupation drags on too long, anti-Americanism, now quiescent, could quickly arise.

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute says Americans can hardly compete with Iraqis in effectively governing their country: “We will never be as good as the Iraqis are because they know their own country and they know to a man who the bad guys are. And our failure to work more closely with them, our failure to put more confidence in them and to repose more power in them for assistance with security, not to speak politically, I think has been a very big mistake.”

We do not want to look like neo-colonial occupiers, says former U.S. army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. He writes in The Washington Post newspaper that a prolonged U.S. stay may be "militarily unsustainable as well as politically untenable."

We can look forward to an Iraqi state that is good enough, not necessarily perfect, writes retired U.S. Air Force Colonel John Warden in The Washington Post. "The longer we take to accomplish this," he says, "the lower the probability of success and the higher the cost."