It has been almost ten months since the last U.S. troops departed Iraq. Many Iraqis—including many in the Iraqi government—had hoped American forces would stay in one form or another, but as some Iraqi government advisors have made clear in informal chats with me, it was obvious that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would not take “yes” for an answer when they asked if an agreement was possible.
So how goes life in Iraq? It has been a couple years since I have been to either southern Iraq or northern Iraq but, by all accounts, both are booming, in the figurative rather than literal way. Basra’s new governor has been, according to many Iraqis with whom I have spoken, a breath of fresh air. Investment continues in Basra, Najaf, and their environs. Oil wealth is sparking real estate investment, the hotel and tourist sector, and leading Iraqis to invest in automobile dealerships, among other businesses.
Iraqi Kurdistan is also doing well, although haphazard planning and corruption has led to the region having the hotels, restaurants, and clubs of Europe, with hospitals and schools reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa.
For the past several years, however, Baghdad has been a pretty depressing place. After decades of war, it has long had a tired feel. While construction cranes dot the north and south of Iraq, there has not been equivalent development inside the capital city, much to the frustration of city residents.
Still, there is now more reason to be optimistic than in the past. The juxtaposition between the international zone, where American diplomats and many Iraqi politicians hole themselves up, and the rest of Baghdad is striking. While the International Zone is dead, the rest of Baghdad is alive. During both day and night, Iraqis are out and about. As several Iraqis have pointed out, so long as you are not a target (i.e., a politician or someone working for a politician or a foreigner), then life is now normal.
Baghdad is not a pretty town, but the streets are crowded and the restaurants are thriving. At the restaurants, those eating include both men and women. Most women are covered, but not everyone is. I visited one new place—built just recently—with multilevel outdoor dining along the banks of the Tigris River. Wild ducks swam around the lowest platform which jutted out into the river, hoping for scraps from the patrons. Some little girls obliged them. October is the perfect time in Baghdad. The days can still be uncomfortably warm—though no worse than Phoenix, Arizona—but the nights are downright pleasant. Every ice cream café I passed was packed full, with couples and teenagers milling around waiting for tables. It is a scene, alas, that American diplomats will not experience: They seldom emerge from behind the embassy’s walls.
The local government is also starting to take baby steps toward beautifying the city. There is a concerted effort to plant trees, curbs are painted, and fountains were working. So, too, were traffic lights, although no one paid any attention to them. There were no new bridges and roads were still in poor condition.
Larger developments—at least in the central neighborhoods where I was going—are still lacking. Sure, there were some nice new homes that looked like they had been transplanted from Kuwait (and designed by the same tasteless architects) and new car dealerships, but the one distinguishing feature of the Baghdad skyline—if you can call this city of overwhelmingly squat structures a skyline—is that working construction cranes are noticeably absent. The Iraqi budget may be huge, but most of the money goes toward the salaries of the inflated state bureaucracy, not to actual development. That may be fine so long as the price of oil is high, but if it ever drops precipitously, there will be trouble.
The State Department and USAID have never been as serious about lessons-learned as the Pentagon is, but the Iraq situation may be a good place to start. It is worth asking—and discussing in far more than passing—what USAID and American development income achieved in Baghdad. Almost a year after the American military presence officially ended, and more than eight years since Iraqi sovereignty was fully restored, there is precious little ordinary Iraqis can point to in terms of physical infrastructure and say, “The Americans did that.”