In his Thursday night convention speech, President Bush heralded his administration’s accomplishment in defeating the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and giving the Iraqi people a future of freedom and hope. Iraq’s future, and that of the surrounding region, could indeed be much brighter as a result of the overthrow of Hussein. But unfortunately, as recent events reveal, that outcome remains far from guaranteed.
It has been a long, hot summer in Iraq. Despite the formal handover on June 28 and a return to Iraqi sovereignty, conditions on the ground have stagnated. Unless we pick up the pace of progress substantially—something that neither President Bush nor Sen. John F. Kerry has convincingly explained how to do—Iraq is unlikely to become a peaceful democracy in the near future. We might instead have to set our sights much lower, trying to keep a lid on the insurgency long enough to train Iraqi forces for the job, let the Iraqi people hold elections, and later this decade take our troops home and hope for the best.
Not all is bleak, to be sure. Iraqis are generally happy to have their country back. Although collectively welcoming the overthrow of Hussein, they became disaffected by the occupation and turned increasingly anti-American. According to polls in the spring, at least 80% had lost faith in the United States, its military forces and its administration of Iraq. The latest surveys of public opinion, however, show popularity levels for figures like interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi typically over 60%, and a greater optimism among the Iraqi people.
In addition, Iraqi security forces are improving. Relative to goals established when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was in place, at least one-third of Iraq’s police and about one-fifth of its needed army are now properly trained. About 90% of the National Guard is at least partly trained; some of its units performed ably in the recent relatively successful battles in Najaf against the Mahdi militia of Muqtada Sadr.
But unfortunately, most other trends are discouraging. We are spending around $5 billion a month total in Iraq. Foreign troop levels in Iraq remain as high as ever, and Americans still make up 85% of the total. U.S. casualties declined to 48 deaths in June—about the post-Hussein monthly average—but then climbed to 55 in July and 66 in August. As a Los Angeles Times article showed earlier this week, most of these losses were not in the battle in Najaf but in the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad. More than 900 other U.S. troops were wounded in August, the second-highest monthly total since Hussein fell. Most other security indicators—casualty rates among our coalition partners, Iraqi deaths from truck bombings, kidnappings and killings of foreign nationals—are as bad as they have been at any time since the invasion.
Might all this bloodshed at least start to slow down soon? Unfortunately, there are few grounds for such hope. Just before the June transfer of sovereignty, an American intelligence officer told Jim Krane of the Associated Press that the hard-core Iraqi insurgency probably numbered 20,000 fighters—four times what Central Command had previously estimated. The number may even have increased this summer. Insurgent attacks on coalition forces are up 20% relative to springtime levels and 100% relative to last fall and winter.
What about economic and quality-of-life indicators? Though most basic amenities are back to their late-Hussein levels, that is a fairly low standard of success. One reason, of course, is the generally poor security environment, which impedes efforts to rebuild and reconstruct. Another is a dearth of funds. Only 5% of the aid Congress appropriated for Iraq last fall has been spent. And sabotage in the energy sector, up threefold this summer, has cut typical Iraqi oil exports to their lowest levels in 2004.
In general, for every good news story in Iraq there is a frustrating or disappointing one. Peak power production is now about 20% higher than under Hussein, for example. But lights are typically on only 10 hours a day in most of Iraq—less than this past winter or spring. The unemployment rate is 30% to 40% and the crime rate at least several times that of America’s worst neighborhoods. In both cases, circumstances have improved somewhat over the last year, but the reality is that unemployment and crime rates are probably worse now than in Hussein’s latter years in power.
This picture, though dispiriting, is not cause for despair. Within a few years, and maybe less, we may be able to leave Iraq a less threatening country than we found it—though our monthly costs and casualties would probably remain high until then. Already, those who suffered from Hussein’s atrocities need fear him no more. That is no small accomplishment. But unless current trends change substantially, the administration’s goals of making Iraq a beacon of democracy, stability and prosperity in the Middle East appear increasingly out of reach.