Daily Archives: March 19, 2006

Iraq: Strolling Down Memory Lane

When the Iraq war began there were varying predictions about the outcome. In terms of U.S. casualties, most predicted that there would be thousands of American deaths, perhaps tens of thousands, not hundreds like the previous war. It was a pretty fair assessment considering the task at hand: not just driving an army across open desert, but actually fighting into and then occupying Iraqi cities. Saddam warned that Bagdad would be a “bloodbath” for the U.S. and nobody was laughing off his suggestion at the time.

On the humanitarian front, a crisis of epic proportions was certainly contemplated by many reasonable observers: the war would lead to complete economic and social collapse, which in turn would lead to a mass of refugees, famine, the spread of disease and all of the related social consequences that war often entails.

On the environment, many forecasted an expansion of the scorched earth policy employed by Saddam in the first Gulf War. We imagined a sea of burning oil wells and projected an incalculable level of damage to the ecosystem in the region. Again, this was not an unreasonable prediction, but rather a pretty safe bet given our recent experience.

And of course, there was the near certain civil war and the break-up of the country. Iraq was a country of three distinct cultures, held together by the firm grip of a dictator. Once Saddam was deposed, the Kurds would break away, resulting in a broader regional conflict with Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Iran, given the decades-long struggle both of those countries have had with their own Kurdish populations. To the south, the Shiites and the Sunnis would battle for control of the rest of the country. It was to be a religious war with significant economic overtones – the control of Iraq’s vast oil wealth.

Finally, we had the “Arab Street”: the Pan-Arab uprising that was to destabilize the entire region. We were told that the populations of neighboring countries simply wouldn’t tolerate an American invading force.

In the end, none of the above occurred. There was no bloodbath in the streets of Baghdad. No humanitarian crises. No scorched earth. Remarkably, there has been no civil war. Despite many attempts by insurgents to incite one, the most recent being the mosque bombings, the various factions have shown remarkable restraint. In the North, Kurdistan is becoming a model for Mideast social and economic development. In the South, the Shiites and the Sunnis have chosen the political process as a means of advocating the interests of their respective populations. There have been difficulties with that process to be sure, but nothing close to civil war. As for the Arab street? Oh there was an Arab street alright, but it was filled with people clamoring for democratic change, in places like Lebanon, and to a lesser extent Egypt.

It’s difficult to imagine that, before the war, one would describe the current situation as a “worst-case” scenario. To the contrary, if one were to suggest, before the war, that not one of the above mentioned scenarios would occur, and that elections would be held within two years (with a voter turnout that rivals election in the West), that every city, every enemy stronghold, such as Fallujah, would be free from enemy military control and that only a relatively small number of fighters (in the hundreds or thousands, but not tens of thousands) engaging in small level attacks would remain as the only military concern, he or she would have been considered a believer in fantasies.

Yet, just the other day, I heard an “expert” describe the situation in Iraq as going from “bad to worse with each passing day.” It is almost universally characterized by the mainstream press as an unmitigated disaster. While the reality is that with each passing day, another prediction that civil war is just around the corner becomes unfulfilled, you will never hear the words “the war is going better than expected” written or uttered in any major news outlet. Instead, the goal posts have been shifted, the successes ignored, entire regions of Iraq forgotten. Grasping on to their pre-determined narrative, the media reports every bombing, every killing, every kidnapping in isolation and absent the broader context.

We don’t hear daily stories about the Iraqi electrical infrastructure anymore. The nightly blackouts became a symbol of a society in complete anomie. Today Iraq still has power grids, except they are being rebuilt and operating well above pre-war standards. When the subject of a story turns positive, it immediately loses its status as a story worthy of coverage. Remember Al Sadr? He was in the spotlight for weeks on end when he was leading a Shiite army against the U.S. Apparently the story of his capitulation and submission to the political process isn’t worth being told. When is the last time you heard the name Sadr city? While it was a ticking time bomb it was if it was at the center of the media universe. And who could forget the city of Fallujah, which occupied headlines for weeks while it was being controlled by foreign terrorists. Well, apparently the media did. After the U.S. forces routed the insurgents it disappeared from our consciousness. A new relatively peaceful city remains – a city with hundreds of stories of success. Stories that will never be told. Before the last bullet was fired the media had already moved onto its next example of Iraqi failure.