There's good news and bad news about Iraq. Wait a minute…there is good news? Yes, but except for the news that U.S. troops have killed two sons of Saddam Hussein in a fire fight, reporters have not been falling over themselves to share it.
The massive aid and reconstruction effort put in place by the U.S. government is indeed proceeding, particularly in the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Iraq, in the north and south, though it is obviously somewhat hampered by the lack of security especially around Baghdad. The humanitarian disaster predicted before the war in Iraq simply did not happen, nor did the expected refugee crisis. This is no coincidence, but the result of deliberate U.S. policies adopted before the first shot was even fired.
But there are the disturbing daily reports of U.S. casualties, which cannot but have an impact on public opinion. The weapons of mass destruction are still to be accounted for. And reports of Iraqi protests against the U.S. presence are periodic.
Beyond that, there are the politically inspired accusations from Democrats that President Bush, in the State of the Union address, misled the nation about putative Iraqi uranium smuggling from Africa.
Adding to the sense of gloom was the document published on July 17 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "A Field Review and Recommendations" about Iraq, which was produced at the request of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. government's highest official in Iraq.
"The next 12 months will be critical to the success or failure of the Iraqi reconstruction effort," write the authors. "In our travels throughout the country, Iraqis uniformly expressed the view that the window of opportunity for the CPA [coalition Provisional Authority] to turn things around in Iraq is closing rapidly. "
Well, being a pessimist is always easy. Either you are right, or you are pleasantly surprised.
But for a change, let's look at the good news, at what has been done in Iraq, according to the CPA and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is the lead agency on reconstruction, which handles the $2.475 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress for the purpose of civilian aid and reconstruction. (That is out of a total reconstruction budget for 2003 of $6.1 billion, the rest coming from oil sales and international contributions.)
Iraq is a country of 24 million people, who previously lived in a Stalinist police state, and many of them in miserable conditions, without clean water or adequate medical care. A huge amount of food and medicine has been delivered by USAID, through its 60 full time employees and 300 contractors.
Grain supplies for 120 days were brought in after the war as soon as the conditions on the ground permitted. Medical care is improving; to date, medicine for 1.9 million people for 90 days has been supplied. Schools throughout the country are now being repaired and supplied with books to be ready to open in August.
The airport in Baghdad is ready to resume commercial traffic as soon as it is secure to do so; the same will soon be true of Basra. Populations in the North and the South have more electricity than they did before the war. In Baghdad, power runs at 75 percent of what it was under the Baath regime. (Getting power back is crucial also for efforts to repair the damaged oil pipelines). Water sanitation is almost back to pre-war levels. To keep order, 34,000 Iraqi police have been rehired. On August 1, an economic team from the Treasury Department is set to arrive with the purpose of introducing by October Iraq's first unified currency in 12 years.
Admittedly, we wasted crucial time in the early summer on political reconstruction, but thanks to the arrival of Mr. Bremer, things are happening now. The first meeting of the Governing Council of Iraq in Baghdad on July 13 was an important milestone. It is a diverse group representing 25 political leaders from Iraq's various ethic groups. The National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute have programs to foster democratic grass roots work, both in Iraq and among the large expatriate community.
Solving the security situation, stopping the low-level guerrilla warfare that is taking its toll on American and allied forces, remains essential. Until that has happened, the U.S. military presence on the ground cannot be reduced.
So, are the Iraqi people better off than they were four months ago? Given what we know about their lives under the Saddam regime, the answer can only be "yes."
Helle Dale is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.