Columns » Ernest Dumas

After the war, what?

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Except for a dozen or so bombings a day that massacre civilians and Iraqi security forces, the news in Iraq is mostly good for Americans nowadays, as long as you don't allow yourself to think much beyond the next two years.

Since we have never been able to look beyond immediate difficulties, particularly in the Middle East, the United States has found itself again and again protecting old enemies and confronting new ones that were once beneficiaries if not exactly good friends, Saddam Hussein being the most famous example. That history is apt to repeat itself on Iraq.

But why not feast on the good news now? Everyone but Dick Cheney and on some days John McCain now agrees that the United States must withdraw its combat troops from Iraq in the next two years, or roughly on the timetable that Sen. Barack Obama spelled out a year ago.

The Iraqi government wants to sign an agreement calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the middle of 2010, which is Obama's timetable.

The Bush administration reportedly doesn't want to make such an agreement, not before the election anyway, although the president says he agrees that a “general time horizon” for ending the occupation could be a good thing. Iraqi leaders say the Americans prefer that the agreement specify December 2011 for the final withdrawal if they must have a fixed date. That would not look so much ?like the administration and the brass were recognizing the Democratic nominee's wisdom or that they were further undermining McCain, who has been isolated by events and his own leader.

When he was confronted by Iraqis' announcement that the United States must leave in 16 to 20 months, Obama's timetable, McCain said that sounded about the right timetable. When someone pointed out that he was endorsing a stand that he formerly had characterized as traitorous, McCain claimed that he hadn't said it and then that he had been misunderstood.

Anyway, the Iraq war seems nearly certain to start shutting down next year for Americans and we will only have its terrible consequences to deal with, not the daily bloodbath and moral dilemma. The Shia will continue the subjugation of the shrinking minority Sunnis — formerly America's friends, then its allies and now its protectorate — but we can look upon the events philosophically.

The Shia came to power by somewhat democratic means. Four years from now the debate will be over President Obama's or McCain's bottomless commitment to the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Even the economic news inside the new free-market state of Iraq is more good than bad, though barely. While the U. S. budget deficit soars toward $500 billion this year — even more discounting the Social Security surplus — Iraq has racked up a surplus of nearly $50 billion, thanks to oil revenue and President Bush's insistence on paying for Iraq's reconstruction or wasting the money.

Iraq can afford to give another big pay increase to its vast and growing civil service, though some in the government worry that the huge pay hikes are needlessly inflationary and magnify the condition of the poor.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Iraq had doubled the number of government employees in the past three years, to 2.3 million. Roughly 35 percent of Iraq's labor force is on the government payroll. That sounds bad but it is a big reason for the spreading peace.

The American commanders bought an end to the insurgency in much of Iraq by persuading tribal militias, mainly Sunnis, to put down their arms or else turn them on al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown terrorists. Bundles of cash up front were persuasive and the Iraqi government promised the 100,000 or so militiamen jobs in the security forces or reconstruction.

Pessimists might want to dwell on the down side. There is practically no private sector although it may gradually return if the country gets around to rebuilding the infrastructure and restoring a reliable power supply. Nearly all the factories closed after the U. S. invasion and they have not reopened.

A huge state, a weak private sector — that does not describe the great free-market country that Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority envisioned when it took over in 2003, fired the civil service and ordered rapid privatization of the government enterprises, but it is not atypical of the Middle East.

But Iraq is a secure country and before terribly long a powerful one for those parts. The Defense Department notified Congress last month that with its big surplus Iraq is buying $10.9 billion of sophisticated weaponry from the United States, including 140 Abrams battle tanks, 392 light-armored vehicles, six big transport planes, 24 helicopters equipped with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and fragmentation warheads, and 26 light anti-tank weapons. It had been buying weapons from Serbia because the U.S. had been holding out on selling the big stuff.

You don't need anti-tank weapons to fight terrorists. Let's hope they don't get sidetracked into the hands of insurgents.

The United States supplies most of all the arms in the Middle East (Russia is a far-distant second) and Iraq has raced far ahead of Israel and Saudi Arabia as the main recipient — more than $20 billion in armaments plus $17.9 billion in military-related aid since 2005.

Iran's mullahs are beloved in Baghdad and they will have one powerful ally in 2011. But why worry about that now? Let's celebrate the good news.

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