Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 19, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

HOW ARE WE DOING IN IRAQ?....I've been wanting to write a post for a while about how things are going in Iraq. The problem is....I don't really know how things are going in Iraq. But even so, I think it's useful to look at this question from two different angles.

The most common angle is to look at the facts on the ground in Iraq, but that doesn't get you very far. The media generally reports that although some progress is being made, things are still pretty bad: people are getting killed, tensions are high, and troop morale is low.

Scoffers suggest that this is just media bias. Why, touring musicians and federal judges, having spent short times there under heavy guard, have returned to tell us that things aren't so bad! Iraqis are definitely better off than they were under Saddam.

This gets us nowhere. Media bias is generally the last refuge of a scoundrel who has no evidence of his own, but the fact is that I've never been to Iraq, the critics have never been to Iraq, and none of us would be qualified to assess the situation even if we did go there. So it's impossible to judge if the press is doing a good job.

Instead let's look at it from a different angle. Presumably the Bush administration does have some idea of how things are going in Iraq, so how have they reacted to events?

  • Before the war they expected to draw down troop levels to around 30,000 by now. This hasn't happened, so obviously events on the ground have turned out to be a lot worse than they originally expected.

  • In fact, as I mentioned last month, we've seen the following actions recently: (a) keeping the 3rd ID in country after scheduling them to return, (b) rotating officers and senior NCOs out of their units, (c) extending the tours of regular troops, and (d) extending the tours of reservists. Now apparently leaves are being shortened. These are risky moves, and the Army wouldn't be making them unless the reality on the ground continued to be grim.

  • The White House has shuffled responsibility for Iraqi reconstruction three times, first to Jay Garner, then to Jerry Bremer, and finally giving Condoleezza Rice a bigger role, the last move provoking a furious response from Donald Rumsfeld, who apparently learned about it via memo and media reports.

  • Last month Bush shocked everyone by requesting an additional $87 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. He wouldn't have requested a sum this large if he could have gotten by with less.

  • Finally, there's the UN. Regardless of what his apologists say now, it's pretty obvious that Bush didn't want to fight for another UN resolution. He wouldn't have done this unless he'd been convinced that he had no other choice.

This is not a knock on the Bush administration. The fact that they're willing to change track when events call for it is fine. Nevertheless, their reaction doesn't strike me as the reaction of an administration that thinks things are going according to plan.

Bottom line: I'm still not sure how things are going in Iraq, but based on the evidence I lean pretty negative. The fact that progress is being made is encouraging, but hardly conclusive. With 130,000 troops in the country and billions of dollars being spent, of course some progress is being made.

But the Sunni triangle still seems to be a war zone, ambushes are taking place at an alarming rate, oil production is not ramping up very quickly, NGOs (and the UN) have pulled out because conditions are so unsafe, unemployment is over 50%, and Saddam is still loose. Compared to this, it's hard to take seriously the evidence of a few miscellaneous visitors who proclaim that everything looks safe to them while refusing to go anywhere without a heavy armed guard.

When you combine these facts on the ground with the fact that the administration isn't acting like things are going well, it's hard to be very optimistic. I'm not well informed enough to draw any firm conclusions I have a feeling that no one is but color me skeptical that Iraq is on its way to being a success story. The evidence seems to point in the other direction.

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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