To the Editor:
Amir Taheri suggests that things in Iraq are not as bad as they seem, marshaling first-hand observations and an assortment of statistical metrics to support his thesis [“The Real Iraq,” June]. He is cautiously optimistic about the future: if the American people stay the course, he feels, chances are good that some kind of stable and democratic Iraq will emerge.
Mr. Taheri notes that his view of the situation is opposed by virtually all other accounts appearing in the Western media, which are dominated by “half-truths and outright misinformation.” How has this happened, one wants to know? Is there a conspiracy among Western journalists to suppress the good news? Are the analysts and pundits uniformly too myopic to see past the daily reports of murder and mayhem to the genuine achievements? How did so many get it so wrong?
As I see it, Mr. Taheri’s cheerful picture of Iraq slights or ignores several alarming trends; I will mention but two. He writes that the “insurgency’s effort to foment sectarian violence” has thus far “run aground.” Would he stand by this assertion today? U.S. military commanders, for their part, have said that the bloody, almost daily operations by both Sunni and Shiite death squads have brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Mr. Taheri also asserts that “all parties and personalities currently engaged in the democratic process have committed themselves to the principle that power should be sought, won, and lost only through free and fair elections.” This seems to me either tautological or wrong. Several politicians command private militias and otherwise use the power and resources of the government in order to effect their will outside of it.
Even when democratic, the political culture seems increasingly illiberal. Although anti-Semitic provisions were left out of the Iraqi constitution in the eleventh hour, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric are still an accepted part of political discourse. Many of Iraq’s leading politicians—including the prime minister—have a worldview that is essentially Islamist. (This is not to mention the sympathy of many supposedly moderate Shiite politicians for Hizballah and the mullahs’ regime in Iran.) And all of this is with America’s close counsel and influence.
To the Editor:
Amir Taheri’s article gave me hope that America’s “democratic project” in Iraq is moving forward despite the troubling stories I read or watch in the media almost every day. Especially heartening was his report about the Iraqi refugees that have returned home since the fall of Saddam Hussein: “By the end of 2005, in the most conservative estimate, the number of returnees topped the 1.2 million mark.” This suggests that Iraqis are voting with their feet for a new life and a new politics in their country.
But shortly after Mr. Taheri’s article appeared, the New York Times published an item reporting that the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants had counted 644,500 Iraqis fleeing the country since the U.S.-led invasion. The news report did not discuss the net flow of persons, but it characterized the overall situation as an “exodus.” Which is it?
Amir Taheri writes:
Paul Schneider asks whether there is a conspiracy by Western media to suppress the good news about Iraq. There is, of course, no conspiracy. What is at work is the classical media dictum that good news is no news. For example, during the U.S. invasion in 2003, the looting of the Baghdad Museum was reported out of all proportion; but there was little follow-up to show that many of the stolen objects had been found and returned to Iraq. Similarly, the brief closure of Iraqi universities in 2003 was massively reported; the fact that they have been open and working ever since then is hardly noticed.
There is also no denying that Iraq has become an issue in the domestic politics of the United States and Great Britain. For partisan reasons, some of the more determined opponents of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair would love to see Iraq fail. Many of the half-truths and misinformation about Iraq to which I referred in my article emanate from those quarters.
Mr. Schneider is right to point out the rise in sectarian violence in the months since my essay appeared. Much of this, however, is traceable to increased hostile activity by Iran, especially through Moqtada al-Sadr’s army, the Jaish al-Mahdi. Sadr’s religious mentor, Ayatollah Haeri, who lives in Qom in Iran, has vowed to avenge the death of Shiites killed by Sunni radicals. Even so, however, there is no evidence that sectarian violence has spread beyond certain districts of Baghdad.
Mr. Schneider is also correct on another point: by modern Western standards, Iraq’s new democracy is far from liberal. With regard to issues of manners and “lifestyle,” for example, the new Iraq is closer to Victorian England than to contemporary Britain. It may take decades before Iraq can become like Switzerland. By Arab standards, however, the new Iraq is doing much better than many of us expected.
Peter Barnes draws our attention to the people who have left Iraq over the past three years. But there are big differences between their case and that of the millions who fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The new Iraqi exiles, most of whom have taken up temporary residence in Jordan and Syria, were not driven out of their homes. They chose to leave for personal reasons. Many have links to the fallen regime, and fear revenge. Some are Christians who have been subjected to systematic violence by Salafists connected to al Qaeda. There are also hundreds of professionals: doctors, teachers, businessmen, and lawyers who have fled because they have been specifically targeted by insurgents.
Most of the new Iraqi exiles do not regard themselves as refugees. Unlike refugees from Saddam Hussein, moreover, they do not face any legal barrier to their return at the time of their choice. In fact, many thousands have gone back since the last general election, in which, by the way, over 60 percent of these temporary exiles voted.
Leaving one’s country for personal considerations, even when these are linked to the overall situation, is not the same as being driven out of one’s homeland by one’s own government. And in any case, the number of those who have returned since liberation is still far higher than the number of those who have left as temporary exiles.