Wayne O’Leary

False Dawn

Hope springs eternal in the hearts of American foreign-policy makers. The misadventure in Iraq, known since the 2003 invasion as Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been renamed by the Obama administration; beginning next fall, it will officially become Operation New Dawn. This suggests a fresh start for Iraq and, by implication, the success of phase one of US involvement there.

Mission accomplished? Hardly. Despite a certain level of brain-dead self-congratulation on the part of the cheerleading media regarding Iraq’s successful holding of parliamentary elections — ABC News was especially culpable — the latest waving of purple, ink-stained fingers does not mean in retrospect that George W. Bush was right. If anything, the current situation in Iraq is irrefutable evidence of how tragically wrong the former president was when he set things on their present path seven years ago.

First, the statistical facts. What military historians call “the butcher’s bill” lists almost 4,400 US servicemembers and Defense Department civilians killed in the course of the war and occupation; close to another 32,000 have been wounded, many suffering serious, life-affecting disabilities. Iraqi civilian deaths are anyone’s guess; the lowball figure, earlier endorsed by the Bush administration, is 100,000, but the actual total could be, and likely is, much higher. In any case, “collateral damage” is not something our government, military, or news media dwell on, as long as destroying the village, Vietnam-fashion, saves it.

More important than the butcher’s bill, except to those directly impacted, is the banker’s bill, since it affects us all. The latest round number for cumulative spending in Iraq (as of February 2010) is $800 billion — over $114 billion per year and counting. To put that in perspective, it totals roughly the same amount spent on the 2009 economic-stimulus package ($787 billion), more than the outlay for the 2008 bank bailout ($700 billion), and more on an annual basis than is budgeted for the entire Obama health-care reform ($938 billion over 10 years). These latter domestic programs have been condemned by their critics as wasteful deficit spending threatening our very economic survival, while the Iraq sinkhole, contrary to logic, somehow represents a judicious and affordable application of funding essential to national security.

And the sinkhole continues to widen and deepen. A total of $53 billion has been earmarked for rebuilding Iraq, described as the biggest foreign-aid project since the Marshall Plan. Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz estimates that by the time all is said and done, the US will have expended (counting ancillary nonmilitary, as well as military, costs) in the vicinity of $3 trillion to establish “democracy” in Iraq. The Stiglitz estimate is based partly on the understanding that, regardless of announced pullbacks of combat troops, our lingering Mesopotamian presence will not end soon. Just a year ago, the new American embassy, the largest in the world, opened in Iraq’s “Green Zone;” likened to Vatican City, it covers 104 acres, contains 27 buildings, houses 1,200 staff, and was constructed over four years at a cost of $700 million. Its looming presence belies Washington’s highly publicized withdrawal commitments.

Furthermore, the Iraq caper has been paid for with borrowed funds — not in the normal sense of deficit financing by soliciting loans from domestic banks or printing money and adding it to the debt, but by borrowing from foreign countries. To finance the war without raising taxes, the Bush administration, prior to leaving office, arranged overseas loans in excess of $600 billion, about a quarter of the amount ($150 billion or more) from China, our main economic competitor. In addition to undermining the value of the dollar internationally, this has made the Chinese central bank (already servicing the mortgage debts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) America’s puppet master; it literally holds the strings to the American economy.

So what has the US gotten for its lives, money, and future indebtedness? On the eve of Iraq’s March parliamentary elections, staff writers for The Economist magazine provided a sober assessment of conditions on the ground that suggest the answer. Their analysis is not pretty.

Iraq remains a garrison state that spends a fifth of its budget on security. Much of Baghdad is a ruined fortress, with 1,500 checkpoints and hundreds of miles of cement blast walls obscuring its Ottoman past; it is, in fact, more militarized than it was under Saddam’s regime.

Iraq’s politics have not changed, despite the recent election, which was characterized by vote-buying, intimidation, outright violence, and a low turnout. Political parties are mutually distrustful; party leaders prefer to “dispatch” rivals rather than engage them. Nor have the country’s dysfunctional parliament and state bureaucracy improved. Government agencies are regarded as spoils, and the legislature does not act, preferring to indefinitely postpone contentious issues, such as a needed hydrocarbons law and the resolution of disputed borders. Public bribery is rife, prompting Transparency International, a watchdog organization, to rank Iraq the fourth- most-corrupt country in the world.

Economically, Iraq continues to be a basket case. It languishes 162nd in world per capita income, its unemployment rate is 45%, and the gap between rich and poor is growing. There is little in the way of basic infrastructure; inadequate electricity afflicts 25% of Iraqis. In terms of health, a quarter of the population lacks medical care, and a fifth is malnourished.

As to the future, there is no promised reconciliation between Iraq’s sectarian militia leaders and no growing accommodation between Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds. Arab nationalism is on the upswing, and an eventual Arab-Kurdish confrontation appears inevitable. Iran, meanwhile, is gaining influence among Iraq’s majority Shiites. The public, concludes The Economist, is “losing faith in democracy,” and the most probable evolving scenario is an authoritarian takeover by politicians and generals acting in concert to muzzle the press and quietly recreate a centralized police state. Iraq could well end up, in other words, right back where it was under Saddam Hussein, except for a soothing pseudo-democratic veneer.

The obvious question, which answers itself, is whether it was all worth the effort, expense, and sacrifice. President Obama and his advisors need to act quickly to avoid replicating Iraq in Afghanistan, cutting their losses while they can. What we’ve learned in the inscrutable Middle East is that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010


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