WASHINGTON -- The son of good friends of mine just returned from Iraq, where he is a top-level American civilian administrator. He was at the center of the action for 10 months, and he shared with me his particularly perceptive description of what is going on "inside the America that is inside Iraq."
"Baghdad is definitely open," John began, in describing the situation. "There are tons of cars coming in, and there are thriving markets. To that effect, things are getting better. But the overall economic stability is not better, and we haven't been able to help them make the transition from the big state enterprises under Saddam to smaller ones.
"Security? Eighty-five percent of the Iraqis just want to make a living -- they know they cannot feed their children with 'freedom' -- and about 5 percent are pro-American and 10 percent are anti-American. But that 10 percent has a safe refuge because 85 percent of the Iraqis turn a blind eye.
"You have to realize that we have only small compounds in key places like Karbala and Najaf, sort of like Fort Apaches in the middle of Iraq, and that Baghdad is so huge that we can't possibly police it. But the real problem is that the majority of troops are conventional troops trained in conventional warfare. These kids are doing their job well, but they've ended up using a lot of the same tactics as in Vietnam.
"Now there's a new approach rising," he went on, "with huge bases created in part to keep up the morale of the troops. But this creates a large insulation between the Iraqis and the Americans; the Americans are living in their own artificial culture of DVDs, Pizza Huts and calls home. Hell, we have trailer parks housing 12,000 people. It is 'force protection' above all.
"Then there is the fact that the American contractors and military will hire anybody -- Palestinians -- before they'll hire Iraqis. Now they're bringing in Bangladeshis to do the work. This is because there is simply no way to vet Iraqis, so they fall back on foreign workers. How big? The number is huge. We are now building 50 different dining facilities for foreign workers -- there are at least 5,000 to 6,000 now -- and we're hiring more. Hiring Southeast Asians and Filipinos doesn't require any additional security ..."
As to our Coalition Provisional Authority, which is half State Department and half Pentagon, he went on, "they only really handle small micro projects. No large ones. That's because there is no security to go out and work among the people."
"I go to the meetings of the military with the Iraqi Governing Council -- the supposed Iraqi government-in-waiting -- and the Governing Council barely shows up. We're working on turning over the airport to them, but there are never any Iraqis in the meetings! The U.S. military doesn't really deal with them; they feel they're there to fight the war, not to rebuild. Yet at the same time, the military's in control.
"Then you have the military contracts with American firms to 'rebuild Iraq.' Well, they do things the typical American way: expensive, slow, resource-intensive ... Yet, at the same time, the people over there are so underqualified that they can't really accomplish the work.
"So what is happening is that we have emasculated the Iraqi 'government,' and the work with them is not at all efficient and the lines of communications are not clear -- and so the American army just ends up doing everything itself.
"June? It's going to be the Iraqi 'government,' with the U.S. military all around them -- sort of like Vichy France. Nobody thinks June will end things: Everybody thinks we will have to be there for many years in order to keep it all propped up. We're saying we want democracy and prosperity -- I'm convinced they are two separate things."
I have spoken to dozens of people back from Iraq since this war started almost a year ago, and John's is the best synthesis of how the American occupation is really structured. We are, at the same time, there and not there. We inhabit huge Mars-like bases which, the Iraqis well know, we step out of only at the cost of terrible risk that they can impose at any moment.
It is an oddly distant occupation, often grotesquely isolated from the people we went there to live amongst and who, even today, we are fearful of employing.
Some say, despite this structuring, that the country IS getting better; the streets are busy, commerce is beginning to recover.
Yet only last week, a USAID confidential report was circulated in Baghdad charting how Iraqi attacks on military and civilian targets in Iraq have escalated this year. It warned of a "Balkanization" of the country, an ancient fear in that ethnically seared piece of Earth. L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the American coalition, said last week that Iraqi security forces will be unable to guarantee safety after the planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.
The reality is that the country could go various ways -- but the way we have structured it and isolated ourselves from the people, the trend is downward.
The only real answer, as time runs down, is for this increasingly vulnerable administration to embrace what foreign policy thinker Ivo Daalder of The Brookings Institution suggested this week: to "strike a grand bargain -- with the Iraqis and with the international community, giving each faction (within Iraq) something." It would then transfer international authority in Iraq to a U.N.-run Iraq assistance mission, help the Governing Council in elections and the interim government in rebuilding Iraq, and bring in a U.S.-led NATO force to provide security until Iraqi forces could do so.
Given our propensity for protecting ourselves in countries we choose to occupy, and given the ferocious dangers that lurk in that inhospitable land, this is clearly the only way out. But there is no indication that this prideful administration has any serious intention of doing this -- and it is almost March.
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