The U.S. venture into Iraq was a war, but it was also a nation-building exercise. America has spent $53 billion trying to reconstruct Iraq, the largest development effort since the Marshall Plan. So how’s it working out?
On the economic front, there are signs of progress. It’s hard to know what role the scattershot American development projects have played, but this year Iraq will have the 12th-fastest-growing economy in the world, and it is expected to grow at a 7 percent annual clip for the next several years.
“Iraq has made substantial progress since 2003,” the International Monetary Fund reports. Inflation is reasonably stable. A budget surplus is expected by 2012. Unemployment, though still 15 percent, is down from stratospheric levels. Oil production is back around prewar levels, and there are some who say Iraq may be able to rival Saudi production. That’s probably unrealistic, but Iraq will have a healthy oil economy, for better and for worse.
Living standards are also improving. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, the authoritative compendium of data on this subject, 833,000 Iraqis had phones before the invasion. Now more than 1.3 million have landlines and some 20 million have cellphones. Before the invasion, 4,500 Iraqis had Internet service. Now, more than 1.7 million do.
In the most recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Iraqis rated their personal finances positively, up from 36 percent in March 2007. Baghdad residents say the markets are vibrant again, with new electronics, clothing and even liquor stores. Basic services are better, but still bad. Electricity production is up by 40 percent over pre-invasion levels, but because there are so many more air-conditioners and other appliances, widespread power failures still occur.
In February 2009, 45 percent of Iraqis said they had access to trash removal services, which is woeful, though up from 18 percent the year before. Forty-two percent were served by a fire department, up from 23 percent.
About half the U.S. money has been spent building up Iraqi security forces, and here, too, the trends are positive. Violence is down 90 percent from pre-surge days. There are now more than 400,000 Iraqi police officers and 200,000 Iraqi soldiers, with operational performance improving gradually. According to an ABC News/BBC poll last year, nearly three-quarters of Iraqis had a positive view of the army and the police, including, for the first time, a majority of Sunnis.
Politically, the basic structure is sound, and a series of impressive laws have been passed. But these gains are imperiled by the current stalemate at the top. Iraq ranks fourth in the Middle East on the Index of Political Freedom from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit — behind Israel, Lebanon and Morocco, but ahead of Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and Tunisia. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis say they want a democracy, while only 19 percent want an Islamic state.
In short, there has been substantial progress on the things development efforts can touch most directly: economic growth, basic security, and political and legal institutions. After the disaster of the first few years, nation building, much derided, has been a success. When President Obama speaks to the country on Iraq, he’ll be able to point to a large national project that has contributed to measurable, positive results.
Of course, to be honest, he’ll also have to say how fragile and incomplete this success is. Iraqi material conditions are better, but the Iraqi mind has not caught up with the Iraqi opportunity. There is still very little social trust. Iraq is the fourth-most-corrupt nation on earth, according to Transparency International’s rating system. The role of women remains surprisingly circumscribed. Iraqi politicians clearly find it very hard to compromise (though they may be no worse than American politicians in this regard).
Human capital is lagging. Most doctors left Iraq after the invasion, and it is hard to staff health clinics. The engineers left too, so American-built plants lie dormant because there is no one with the skills to run them. Schools are suffering because of a lack of teachers.
Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador, recently wrote an article in The National Interest noting that fear still pervades Iraq. Ethnic animosities are in abeyance, but they are not gone. Guns have been put in closets, but not destroyed.
If he is honest, Obama will have to balance pride with caution. He’ll have to acknowledge that the gains the U.S. is enabling may vanish if the U.S. military withdraws entirely next year. He’ll have to acknowledge that bottom-up social change requires time and patience. He’ll have to heed the advice of serious Iraq hands like Crocker, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and shelve plans to withdraw completely.
Such a move may rob him of a campaign talking point. But it will safeguard an American accomplishment that has been too hard won.