Friday, May 19, 2006


Understanding Iraq

By now, Amir Taheri’s comprehensive assessment of Iraq in Commentary has received wide attention. Read the whole thing.

Taheri begins his report about the Real Iraq, describing the almost universal puzzlement of those who visit Iraq for any length, and return to compare their observations with mainstream media (MSM) reporting:

Within hours of arriving here, as I can attest from a recent visit, one is confronted with an image of Iraq that is unrecognizable.

Taheri recounts the many ways public opinion is molded by prominent (and often hysterical) reporting, and concludes:

it is no wonder the American public registers disillusion with Iraq and everyone who embroiled the U.S. in its troubles.

For many of us who criticize MSM reporting on Iraq, Taheri is perhaps too generous or forgiving of their motivations:

To make matters worse, many of the newsmen, pundits, and commentators on whom American viewers and readers rely to describe the situation have been contaminated by the increasing bitterness of American politics. Clearly there are those in the media and the think tanks who wish the Iraq enterprise to end in tragedy, as a just comeuppance for George W. Bush. Others, prompted by noble sentiment, so abhor the idea of war that they would banish it from human discourse before admitting that, in some circumstances, military power can be used in support of a good cause. But whatever the reason, the half-truths and outright misinformation that now function as conventional wisdom have gravely disserved the American people.

This misinformation grievously misinforms much public opinion about Iraq, and seriously undervalues the great successes of the US Military, the Iraqi Government, and the Iraqi people.

Taheri suggests a multi-faceted and diverse range of criteria for what he considers a more accurate assessment of how things go in Iraq, summarized by the following:

Criteria: Refugees

The first sign is refugees. When things have been truly desperate in Iraq -- in 1959, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1980, 1988, and 1990 -- long queues of Iraqis have formed at the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, hoping to escape.

Iraqis, far from fleeing, have been returning home. By the end of 2005, in the most conservative estimate, the number of returnees topped the 1.2-million mark. Many of the camps set up for fleeing Iraqis in Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia since 1959 have now closed down. The oldest such center, at Ashrafiayh in southwest Iran, was formally shut when its last Iraqi guests returned home in 2004.

Criteria: Pilgrimage

A second dependable sign likewise concerns human movement, but of a different kind. This is the flow of religious pilgrims to the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Whenever things start to go badly in Iraq, this stream is reduced to a trickle and then it dries up completely. From 1991 (when Saddam Hussein massacred Shiites involved in a revolt against him) to 2003, there were scarcely any pilgrims to these cities.

Since Saddams fall, they have been flooded with visitors. In 2005, the holy sites received an estimated 12 million pilgrims, making them the most visited spots in the entire Muslim world, ahead of both Mecca and Medina.

Criteria: Iraqi Dinar

In the final years of Saddam Husseins rule, the Iraqi dinar was in free fall; after 1995, it was no longer even traded in Iran and Kuwait. By contrast, the new dinar, introduced early in 2004, is doing well against both the Kuwaiti dinar and the Iranian rial, having risen by 17 percent against the former and by 23 percent against the latter.

Criteria: Small and Medium Sized Businesses

In the past, whenever things have gone downhill in Iraq, large numbers of such enterprises have simply closed down, with the country’s most capable entrepreneurs decamping to Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, Iran, and even Europe and North America. Since liberation, however, Iraq has witnessed a private-sector boom, especially among small and medium-sized businesses.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as well as numerous private studies, the Iraqi economy has been doing better than any other in the region. The country’s gross domestic product rose to almost $90 billion in 2004 (the latest year for which figures are available), more than double the output for 2003, and its real growth rate, as estimated by the IMF, was 52.3 per cent. In that same period, exports increased by more than $3 billion, while the inflation rate fell to 25.4 percent, down from 70 percent in 2002. The unemployment rate was halved, from 60 percent to 30 percent.

Criteria: Readiness to Talk to Outsiders

Finally, one of the surest indices of the health of Iraqi society has always been its readiness to talk to the outside world. Iraqis are a verbalizing people; when they fall silent, life is incontrovertibly becoming hard for them. There have been times, indeed, when one could find scarcely a single Iraqi, whether in Iraq or abroad, prepared to express an opinion on anything remotely political. This is what Kanan Makiya meant when he described Saddam Husseins regime as a republic of fear.

Today, again by way of dramatic contrast, Iraqis are voluble to a fault. Talk radio, television talk-shows, and Internet blogs are all the rage, while heated debate is the order of the day in shops, tea-houses, bazaars, mosques, offices, and private homes. A catharsis is how Luay Abdulilah, the Iraqi short-story writer and diarist, describes it. This is one way of taking revenge against decades of deadly silence. Moreover, a vast network of independent media has emerged in Iraq, including over 100 privately-owned newspapers and magazines and more than two dozen radio and television stations. To anyone familiar with the state of the media in the Arab world, it is a truism that Iraq today is the place where freedom of expression is most effectively exercised.

Taheri expands on what these factors mean to him in the aggregate. If you don’t read the whole thing, don’t miss his conclusion:

But more sober observers should understand the real balance sheet in Iraq. Democracy is succeeding. Moreover, thanks to its success in Iraq, there are stirrings elsewhere in the region. Beyond the much-publicized electoral concessions wrung from authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, there is a new democratic discourse to be heard. Nationalism and pan-Arabism, yesterdays hollow rallying cries, have given way to a big idea of a very different kind. Debate and dissent are in the air where there was none before a development owing, in significant measure, to the U.S. campaign in Iraq and the brilliant if still checkered Iraqi response.

The stakes, in short, could not be higher. This is all the more reason to celebrate, to build on, and to consolidate what has already been accomplished. Instead of railing against the Bush administration, Americas elites would do better, and incidentally display greater self-respect, to direct their wrath where it properly belongs: at those violent and unrestrained enemies of democracy in Iraq who are, in truth, the enemies of democracy in America as well, and of everything America has ever stood for.

Is Iraq a quagmire, a disaster, a failure? Certainly not; none of the above. Of all the adjectives used by skeptics and critics to describe today’s Iraq, the only one that has a ring of truth is messy. Yes, the situation in Iraq today is messy. Births always are. Since when is that a reason to declare a baby unworthy of life?

Democracy, in too many places in the world, is an experiment as yet not undertaken. America demonstrates that the experiment can be successful. Iraq may yet demonstrate that the experiment is worth the attempt.

Dr. Sanity summarizes the Taheri report, and further touches on US military recruiting and retention:

These seem like pretty significant changes to me, but of course will hardly convince those who are determined to make Iraq into a "quagmire" and convince the American people how hopeless it is there. These people are unreachable by factual arguments.
From the other side of the argument, note how the U.S. military has met all its recruitment goals and has record re-enlistment--despite the highlighting of dissatisfied soldiers in major newspapers; the opposition of military recruitment on many college campuses; and the overemphasis on familes of fallen soldiers, who make it clear they are opposed to the war.

Dr. Sanity also notes the seemingly intentional counter-report at the NY Times on the “mass Exodus” of middle class Iraqis from Iraq:

Almost as if to deliberately counter Taheri's piece, there is an article in the NY Times today--with the melodramatic title "As Death Stalks Iraq, Middle Class Exodus Begins"(which sounds suspiciously like the headlines they use to talk about Detroit and other urban areas of the US)--except, as noted by Cori Dauber, what they are really reporting on is an exodus from Baghdad..not all of Iraq. But the article is framed to suggest that this is a phenomenon impacting the entire country. Dauber also comments that they have no data to support such an overarching conclusion. (Does an exodus from Detroit or D.C. mean that the entire middle class is leaving America?)
However, the Times piece itself is a data point supportive of my own thesis--that the MSM is dedicated to putting the worse possible face on every current aspect of Iraqi society. Iraqis have reasons to be upset with the slow-moving pace of their new governemnt, and until that government coalesces and starts doing what it needs, it will disaffect many there. How is that different from any other free country, where citizens can leave when it is in their interest to do so? As I mentioned in the comment section to this post, the fact that the MSM and the left desperately want to believe Al Qaeda and chaos are winning is like a beacon of hope to the murderers and terrorists. They know they have lost militarily and politically; but they are hoping that their useful idiot brigade here in the U.S. and elsewhere can pull out a victory for them despite defeat.

Rantingprofs, while not dismissing the NY Times article, agrees with Dr. Sanity that this report about Baghdadis leaving Baghdad is being used to generalize about Iraqis leaving Iraq, which is a pretty large stretch extrapolation-wise.

Also linked for commentary at Gateway Pundit, Mudville Gazette, Powerline, Austin Bay, Carol Platt Liebau.

Linked at: Basil's Blog, Cao's Blog, Jo's Cafe

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