July 13, 2003

Gerecht in Iraq

I read somewhere today that the number of reporters embedded with coalition forces is down from 700 or so during the war, to 23 today. Maybe that's why the top "Iraq" story in the U.S. media for the last couple of weeks has been about one sentence from a Presidential speech six months ago. That is, nothing at all about what is currently going on in Iraq.

Bush's political opponents, many trying desperately to make people forget that they favored a policy that would have left Saddam in power, find themselves frustrated. In hindsight, some of these people are now on board, and agree that the prospect of a free and self-governing Iraq may well be a good thing, but only if they can prevent any feathers from finding their way into Bush's cap. They do have a plan though, to deal with their "concerns" about the intelligence community. A Congressional investigation of the "uranium sentence" scandal. Sorry, but didn't we already have the Democratic response to the State of the Union address?

The media elements among this crowd then, naturally dwell on coalition problems, setbacks and embarrassments in their reporting. After all, I guess building infrastructure, distributing food and natural gas, and setting up governmental institutions doesn't sell papers. These are some of the same folks we hear babbling on about uranium and Niger and the CIA, as if any of that has the slightest impact on the task we face helping the people of Iraq to establish democracy and to otherwise order their lives and their country.

Reuel Marc Gerecht went to Iraq, toured the country, interviewed citizens, spoke with clerics, and seems to have had a tough time reconciling what he observed there, with what he reads in the Western press:

As I walked the streets of Baghdad at night, which in most districts of the city isn't a particularly dangerous thing to do, as I visited mosques and clerics in the Sunni and Shiite lands to the north and south, I picked up a fairly acute case of cognitive dissonance. Reading too much of the Western press before and especially during a visit to Iraq is mentally unbalancing. Though the problems in Iraq are enormous and the isolation of many U.S. officials in the Jumhuriyah Palace headquarters in Baghdad is surreal, neither the country nor its American administrators appeared to be sliding downhill into chaos. In most of Iraq--in the key areas of the country, in the Shiite south, the Kurdish north, and in Baghdad--just the opposite is happening. Productive energy and commerce are slowly returning to the streets, which is impressive given how long it is taking to rebuild a functioning nationwide telephone system. In mid to late June, U.S. officials--for all their clumsiness, lack of language skills, and enthusiastic ethos of "force protection"--appeared to be drawing closer to the Iraqi population, not farther away. This was especially true in the Shiite regions of Iraq, which are essentially everything from Baghdad south.

One of Gerecht's key recommendations is for the government to transfer as many as possible of our "culturally savvy", Arabic-speaking officials from their various other assignments to Iraq, since communication, and most of all listening, is our most urgent task at this point. He does say that the ones we have there now are making good progress:

With a very small staff--unquestionably too small--a handful of Arabic-speaking officials is successfully building ties to this community, which is slowly, fitfully, and still quite timidly developing political legs to stand on. At the American headquarters in the town of Hilla, which is where the front-line administrators reside for the southern Shiite zone, a small cadre is learning the ABCs of the Shiite community. This isn't at all an easy task, and could not have been done before the Anglo-American invasion, since the Shiites themselves are only beginning to understand their own post-Saddam identity. There is no reference work through which a U.S. official could have acquired the slimmest working knowledge of who the Iraqi Shiites really are. The American team at Hilla, led by an intrepid Arabic-speaking foreign service officer who operates wisely with minimum security, is doing the ground-breaking, democracy-building spadework of figuring out what is the real power-matrix among the Shiites. The team is slowly compiling a useful understanding of the Shiite tribes, which will inevitably produce, once the tribal leaders themselves determine the number and relative loyalties of their followers, more than a few of Iraq's future key parliamentarians.

Read it all.

The WSJ weighs in on the real reason that the "uranium story" is getting so much airtime. Here's an excerpt:

...the uranium issue is the latest in a series of desperate efforts by critics to impugn the president's success in Iraq. As the British might say, this is very odd indeed. Usually, intelligence controversies are over who is to blame for failure; this time it seems to be about discrediting victory.

For more reporting direct from Iraq, see this earlier post from an Army Major.

Posted by dan at July 13, 2003 9:46 PM