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Iraqis Ask: Why Didn’t USAID Do That?

The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:

  • First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
  • Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
  • Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
  • And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.

The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.

Despite small-scale investment and development in Baghdad—new shops, car dealerships, restaurants, etc.—the lack of construction cranes in the city is marked. I challenged the prime minister’s office to demonstrate that the government itself was improving the lives of ordinary citizens in Iraq’s capital city. After all, both under Saddam Hussein and today, the government has applied most of Iraq’s oil wealth toward the salaries of an inflated civil service. By providing jobs, even unnecessary ones, the government provides security and stability to its people. Such patronage is not a wise long-term political strategy. So long as the price of oil is high, the strategy will work. But when oil declines—as it inevitably will—there will be trouble.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government agreed to show me some of their latest projects. The first was nearly complete—a huge water intake and treatment station on the Tigris River that should supply most of Baghdad with chlorinated drinking water. The project involves state-of-the-art purification and laboratory facilities, the largest covered reservoirs in Iraq, and a compound for workers and their families—including not only apartments, but also schools, shops, laundries, and entertainment centers—so that the workers can be on call 24/7 if problems develop.

True, Americans tried to develop small-scale water plants, but not on this scale. Frankly, even this should not have been an American responsibility; water plants are an Iraqi job, but one for which American businesses should have competed. The largest American component is the Caterpillar backup generators. It is a shame that those who boycott Caterpillar would so willingly sacrifice the health of Iraqi children on the altar of the activists’ animosity toward Israel.

Other projects are underway in Baghdad. The government is five months into an amusement center and park complex alongside man-made lakes near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They may not be the multibillion projects attempted by USAID, but they do better fulfill an Iraqi demand.

I also drove along the Qanat al-Jaysh (Army Canal), an 18-mile irrigation canal that runs across Baghdad connecting the Tigris to the Diyala Rivers. Progress to clean and transform the canal from a dusty, trash- and sludge-strewn strip into a park and refuge and leisure center is well underway. Crews were landscaping, planting trees, laying stone walkways and a corniche. Pedestrian bridges spanning busy roadways already connect the strip to adjacent neighborhoods. When the park is complete, the strip of green through Baghdad will be something which young and old, rich and poor Iraqis can enjoy, regardless of religion or ethnicity. It will be dotted with restaurants, ice cream stands, and tea houses and will become Baghdad’s equivalent of the Beirut or Doha corniches, Tel Aviv beach, or the stream-side parks of northern Tehran.

This is the type of project the United States should have executed for the Iraqis: It would be eminently doable, difficult for insurgents to destroy, and would have won hearts and minds immediately. Perhaps had USAID embraced metrics other than that of money spent, Iraqis might not look at their experience with the United States as the lost years. For the first time since the brief honeymoon period following Saddam’s ouster, Iraqis once again have hope. The question for President Obama and Governor Romney is whether they have any true plans to cement the partnership, not with tanks and troops, but with investment and commerce leading the way.



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