Back from Iraq: Eye-Opening Moments

Last week I had quite an experience. Partly thanks to help from Brookings and, indirectly, the MacArthur Foundation, I was able to participate in a Pentagon-run visit to Iraq. I was only there a couple days, with nights spent safely in the comfort of a nice hotel in Kuwait, but even in that short time I experienced enough intense and eye-opening moments to make the trip among my most memorable.

Our group of 15, consisting of defense scholars, former officers, and TV military analysts, left each morning for Iraq on a military C-130. We often landed at Baghdad International Airport, descending in a series of tight circles so that we only flew over relatively safe ground while approaching the airfield. Once there we would drive or take a helicopter to our next destination, with armed escorts everywhere to provide security. I was not nervous, hardly out of bravery so much as a sense that we were being well protected and that overall violence rates in Iraq are rather low statistically.

But our minders took every precaution. For example, we took off in our airplane one evening with all the lights off so as to reduce our visibility to would-be attackers. And American troops certainly were under clear directions to be prepared, armed, and vigilant at all times; one sign in a cafeteria in Baghdad admonished them with the words, "no weapon, no food."

In fact, most of Iraq really is at peace. We flew low over villages, even in Sunni areas, without worrying much about staying away from inhabited zones; we drove through Mosul and Hilla and other towns in vehicles without armored protection and without flak jackets or helmets. Things are not quite so good in places such as Baghdad and Tikrit, but even there they aren't so bad.

One striking thing about visiting the U.S. military in the field is that you get a clearer sense of how good its men and women really are. Commanders such as major generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno are veterans of previous stability operations in the Balkans, old-fashioned soldiers who are seasoned practitioners of combat operations. They really can do it all—fight by night, keep the peace and build nations by day. The Bush administration has always been critical of the nation-building legacy it inherited from its predecessor, but that legacy is redounding to its advantage in a big way in Iraq.

The United States is not alone in Iraq; a couple dozen countries together provide about 25,000 troops to complement our 150,000 or so in the region. They form two divisions, one led by the British in the south around Basra, the second led by the Poles but also made up of troop contributions from many European, Latin American, and other countries and deployed in the "Shia heartland" south of Baghdad. Each of these divisions is smaller and less capable than the U.S. divisions in Iraq, but they also are deployed in somewhat more peaceful parts of the country than are most American forces. We visited the Poles, who clearly took great pride in their role in the effort and were excited to be putting their new NATO membership and close partnership with the United States to the test.

Iraq is extremely hot—well over 100 degrees most days even in late September, except in the north—and extremely dusty. It is also rather beleaguered looking. But signs of development and of economic promise are everywhere. Flying over the country one is struck by the omnipresent irrigation ditches. Water plus oil plus large tracts of land make for a strong economic potential, if the country can achieve stability and get itself jumpstarted on the road to recovery.

The morale of U.S. troops is pretty good. Most I talked with in private were relatively confident about the progress of the mission, though in fairness some were not. Most seemed confident about their own ability to do their jobs, and not particularly nervous or frightened about the danger of the mission—but still homesick, concerned about how long they'd have to stay away from families on the current tour, and anxious about the possibility that they will have to go back overseas a second (or third) time even after finally getting home in a few months.

They are also beginning to follow political debates back in the States more carefully, now that television is prevalent in mess halls and other common areas. No one I talked with was particularly bitter, but there were still words of criticism for both political parties—the Bush Administration and Republicans for making the U.S. Army do so much without enlisting much allied (or Marine Corps) help, and for threatening at one point to cut combat pay; Democrats for coming across as too negative about the value of the overall effort at times.

Most troops weren't too excited about the coming baseball playoffs or football season or the Democratic presidential primaries or anything in their immediate social sphere. They were working too hard and too focused on doing their mission, and then on getting home.

U.S. military headquarters in Iraq are often found in Saddam's former palaces. Those palaces are perfectly passable, resembling nice if somewhat "nouveau riche" hotels in many fast-growing parts of the western world, but with a Muslim/Ottoman/Mesopotamian flair. They might be better described as McPalaces than true palaces. That said, they aren't bad and make perfectly good office space at present.

American civilians in Iraq are doing a great job too. We met a number of youngish State Department officials working with the Coalition Provisional Authority and other groups. They reminded me of Peace Corps days, except that in this case they really have the resources and the national commitment behind them to give the overall effort a good chance of success.

The local economy in most of Iraq is improving but only slowly. U.S. commanders are trying to jump start it by hiring Iraqis whenever they can, to do security jobs or repair infrastructure or fix factories. Putting more money in commanders' hands—and thus Iraqi pockets—and less in the hands of U.S. contractors would on balance probably be smart. But regardless of the method we employ, Saddam so socialized and distorted the Iraqi economy that it will take time to fix it.

The Iraqi political figures we met were generally members of the municipal councils, which are the local governing bodies partially formed by American authorities and partially selected by Iraqis. Some spoke English, most did not; some seemed polished, some not so much; all seemed enthusiastic about their new jobs.

Not all were "yes men" for the United States (virtually all that we met were indeed men, however). Arab Sunnis in particular, who used to enjoy the benefits of having a kinsman in charge of the country in the person of Saddam Hussein and who now worry about loss of stature and influence, often feel disenfranchised. Since they only constitute 15 to 20 percent of the population, they stand to have less influence in any fairly conceived future power-sharing arrangement for a new, federal, democratic Iraq.

But the Iraqis we met were nonetheless grateful for the defeat of Saddam and passionate about their country's future. Their enthusiasm, and their desire to work together with U.S. and other coalition forces, warmed the heart of this former Peace Corps volunteer. Maybe that is why, on balance, I couldn't help but leave the country with a real, if guarded and cautious, feeling of optimism.