Five years after the Bush administration destroyed most of Iraqi society, Iraq has finally begun to stabilize. Violence has declined sharply, and some semblance of normal daily life is returning to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. John McCain, the Bush administration, and a number of neoconservative analysts argue that this heralds the beginning of an American victory, and vindicates the Bush administration’s policies. If so, it is a very odd victory indeed, and if this is winning, I’d hate to see what losing would look like.
To be fair, it is unquestionably true that “the Surge,” or more correctly the Surge and General Petraeus’ community-oriented counterinsurgency policies, have greatly reduced violence in Iraq, more than I or most other observers felt was likely. There is even some evidence of halting, limited political progress. At the same time, however, this process of stabilization is institutionalizing a national and regional system that constitutes anything but “victory.” Until about a year ago, the occupation of Iraq was conducted with a degree of incompetence, arrogance, and stupidity perhaps unparalleled in the last 50 years, and its effects will be lasting. Consider the following:
First, Iraq’s power structure is solidifying into a fundamentalist Islamist, often pro-Iranian, spectacularly corrupt, and generally anti-American Shiite regime. A major fraction of Iraq’s new leadership, including its prime minister, lived in Iran for 20 years and rely on a militia, the Badr Organization, that was trained by Iran’s military and secret police. Other powerful groups such as the Sadrists are virulently anti-American and fundamentalist. All major groups are stunningly corrupt. In 2007, the last year for which ratings are available, Transparency International rated Iraq number 178 of 180 countries in national corruption.
Second, Iraq’s infrastructure, government, educational system, and middle class have been decimated by Bush administration policy, and will take decades to recover if they ever do. Estimates of the civilian death toll between 2003 and now range from 100,000 to 600,000; nobody knows for sure. Millions have been injured and traumatized. Over 5 million people, 20% of Iraq’s entire population, are now either internally displaced or foreign refugees. As of several months ago, 10,000 people per month were still fleeing their homes. Of Iraq’s 34,000 doctors in 2003, about 2,000 have been assassinated, and another 20,000 have fled the country. About 20% of the professors at Baghdad University were murdered. Only recently have any infrastructure indicators reached prewar levels — and remember, Iraq in 2003 was a society that had endured a decade of extremely harsh economic sanctions and gross mismanagement under Saddam’s regime. The average Iraqi now has electricity for a few hours a day, and rarely has access to running water, sewage treatment, transportation, or education.
And finally, as a result of the Bush administration’s disastrous errors, the United States remains pinned down and rendered powerless to affect events far more dangerous than Saddam was. Iraq’s tenuous stability remains highly dependent on American military force. Under no foreseeable conditions will the United States be able to withdraw the majority of its 150,000 troops any time soon; even Senator Obama calls only for the withdrawal of front-line combat troops, who only constitute 25% of all U.S. forces. And while the U.S. continuously struggles to recover from its disastrous mistakes in Iraq, Iran continues unchecked in its development of nuclear weapons, Pakistan is falling into Islamic extremism, and Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly in the face of renewed growth of the Taliban.
To obtain this result, the Bush administration has used the lives of over 4,000 soldiers, wounded over 100,000 more, has caused the deaths of perhaps a quarter million Iraqi civilians, and has spent $2 trillion. Victory, anyone?