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Published: Tuesday, 8/31/2010

Progress proves that nation-building works

BY DAVID BROOKS

The U.S. venture into Iraq was a war, but it was also a nation-building exercise. America has spent $53 billion trying to reconstruct Iraq, the largest development effort since the Marshall Plan.

So how's it working out?

On the economic front, there are signs of progress. It's hard to know what role the scattershot American development projects have played, but this year Iraq will have the 12th-fastest-growing economy in the world. It is expected to grow at a 7 percent annual clip for the next several years.

"Iraq has made substantial progress since 2003," the International Monetary Fund reports.

Inflation is reasonably stable. A budget surplus is expected by 2012. Unemployment, though still 15 percent, is down from stratospheric levels.

Oil production is back around prewar levels, and there are some who say Iraq may be able to rival Saudi production. That's probably unrealistic, but Iraq will have a healthy oil economy, for better and for worse.

Living standards are also improving. According to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, the authoritative compendium of data on this subject, 833,000 Iraqis had phones before the invasion.

Now more than 1.3 million have landlines and 20 million have cell phones. Before the invasion, 4,500 Iraqis had Internet service. Now, 1.7 million do.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Iraqis rate their personal finances positively, up from 36 percent in March, 2007. Residents of Baghdad say the markets are vibrant again, with new electronics, clothing, and liquor stores.

Basic services are better, but still bad. Electricity production is up by 40 percent over preinvasion levels, but because there are more air-conditioners and other appliances, widespread power failures still occur.

In February, 2009, 45 percent of Iraqis said they had access to trash removal services, though up from 18 percent the year before. Forty-two percent were served by a fire department, up from 23 percent.

About half the U.S. money has been spent building up Iraqi security forces, and here too, the trends are positive. Violence is down 90 percent from presurge days. There are now more than 400,000 Iraqi police officers and 200,000 Iraqi soldiers, with operational performance improving gradually. According to an ABC News/BBC poll last year, nearly three-quarters of Iraqis had a positive view of the army and the police, including, for the first time, a majority of Sunnis.

Politically, the basic structure is sound, and a series of impressive laws have been passed. But these gains are imperiled by the current stalemate at the top.

Iraq ranks fourth in the Middle East on the Index of Political Freedom from The Economist's Intelligence Unit - behind Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco, but ahead of Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and Tunisia. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis say they want a democracy. Only 19 percent want an Islamic state.

In short, there has been progress on the things development efforts can touch most directly: economic growth, basic security, and political and legal institutions. After the disaster of the first few years, nation-building, much derided, has been a success.

There is still little social trust. Iraq is the fourth-most corrupt nation on Earth, according to Transparency International's rating system. The role of women remains surprisingly circumscribed. Iraqi politicians clearly find it very hard to compromise, though they may be no worse than American politicians in this regard.

Human capital is lagging. Most doctors left Iraq after the invasion, and it is hard to staff health clinics. The engineers left too, so U.S.-built plants lie dormant because there is no one with the skills to run them. Schools suffer because of a lack of teachers.

Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador, recently wrote an article in the National Interest noting that fear still pervades Iraq. Ethnic animosities are in abeyance, but they are not gone. Guns have been put in closets, but not destroyed.

If he is honest, President Obama should acknowledge that the gains the U.S. military is enabling may vanish if the military withdraws entirely next year. He'll have to acknowledge that change requires time and patience. He'll have to heed the advice of serious Iraq hands, and shelve plans to withdraw completely.

Such a move may rob him of a campaign talking point. But it will safeguard an American accomplishment that has been too hard won.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.



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