Monday, June 21, 2004

Reconstruct This

All too often people aren’t able to hear the good news coming out of Iraq. Sensationalism first, substance later is the operating mantra of News organization anxious to scoop the hottest story. From suicide bombings, attacks on coalition forces, and the continual sectarian, political posturing between the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA); the soon to be dissolved Iraqi Governing Council (IGC); and the just newly appointed Iraq Interim Government (IIG), the reconstruction of Iraq has hardly received the substantive coverage it's due. Nearly $20 billion in American taxpayer dollars are being spent on the reconstruction and the public accounting of these monies isn’t being thoroughly investigated. We know enough about the security situation in Iraq—which appears to be destabilizing, somewhat, before the June 30th handover, after weeks of relative stasis due in most part to the cease-fire reached with Moqtada sadr.

But do we know enough about the concrete differences the reconstruction has brought to the Iraqi people?

The sheer breadth of the details of reconstruction makes the topic less amendable to distilled news segment form. Even so, only in print, and rarely, will one find the type of coverage that accounts of the reconstruction. This has much to do with the investigative encumbrances of researching in Iraq with its poor security. Therefore, as the security goes in Iraq, so does the reconstruction.

Two lengthy articles, one in The Washington Post, the other in The Chicago Tribune, speak to the efforts being made during the tumultuous reconstruction of Iraq. Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post interviewed various senior members of the CPA, the civilian authority tasked by the White house to administer the transition process. Of major concern is the ability of the CPA to disburse the funds necessary to reconstruct crucial infrastructure. This is being impeded by the continuous security threats:

About 15,000 Iraqis have been hired to work on projects funded by $18.6 billion in U.S. aid, despite promises to use the money to employ at least 250,000 Iraqis by this month. At of the beginning of June, 80 percent of the aid package, approved by Congress last fall, remained unspent.
Although the $18.6 billion reconstruction aid package was approved by Congress in November, the Pentagon office charged with spending it has moved slowly. About $3.7 billion of this package had been spent by June 1, according to the CPA. Many projects that have received funding have slowed or stopped entirely because Western firms have withdrawn employees from Iraq in response to attacks on civilian contractors.

CPA officials contend the money should have been earmarked and spent far sooner. Had that happened, they argue, the CPA could have retained much of the goodwill that existed among Iraqis after the U.S. invasion and possibly weakened the insurgency.
By starting late, the adviser said, the CPA got "caught in a security trap." More than $2 billion of the aid package will be spent hiring private guards for contractors, buying them armored vehicles and building secure housing compounds, CPA officials estimate. "If we had spent this money sooner, before things got bad, we could have spent more of it on actually helping the Iraqi people," the adviser said.

Because many of the 2,300 projects to be funded by the $18.6 billion are large construction endeavors that will involve foreign laborers instead of Iraqis, they will result in far less of a local economic boost than the CPA had promised, another senior official involved in the reconstruction said. The projects were chosen largely without input from Iraqis.

"This was supposed to be our big effort to help them -- 18 billion of our tax dollars to fix their country," the senior reconstruction official said. "But the sad reality is that this program won't have a lot of impact in it for the Iraqis. The primary beneficiaries will be American companies."

Clearly the security concerns have affected reconstruction efforts, though to the extent illustrated in the article, I was unaware. It’s is difficult to fault the CPA for having failed because to fail a substantial effort must have been undertaken. The CPA can’t even leave the Green Zone:

Life inside the high-security Green Zone -- what some CPA staffers jokingly call the Emerald City -- bears little resemblance to that in the rest of Baghdad. The power is always on. Shiny shuttle buses zip passengers around. Outdoor cafes stay open late into the night.

There is little effort to comply with Islamic traditions. Beer flows freely at restaurants. Women walk around in shorts. Bacon cheeseburgers are on the CPA's lunch menu.

"It's like a different planet," said an Iraqi American who has a senior position in the CPA and lives in the Green Zone but regularly ventures out to see relatives. "It's cut off from the real Iraq."

Because the earth-toned GMC Suburbans used by CPA personnel and foreign contractors have become a favored target of insurgents, traveling outside the Green Zone -- into the Red Zone that defines the rest of Iraq -- requires armored vehicles and armed escorts, which are limited to senior officials. Lower-ranking employees must either remain within the compound or sneak out without a security detail.
Limited contact with Iraqis outside the Green Zone has made CPA officials reliant on the views of those chosen by Bremer to serve on the Governing Council. When Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, asked the CPA for details about several Iraqis he was considering for positions in the interim government, he told associates he was "shocked to find how little information they really had," according to an official who was present.
The CPA official who got around the most was Bremer, who travels with an entourage of private guards, most of them former Navy SEALs, equipped with helicopters and a fleet of armored vehicles.

However, significant missteps by Bremer have led to poor training for the Iraq police and armed forces further exacerbating the security situation.

But if the CPA hasn’t been able to freely execute its duties, then quite certainly they are prepping for the transition to Embassy? The CPA will be wound down and re-branded as the American Embassy in Iraq, the world’s largest of its kind employing more than 3000 people. Thus the quality and the credentials of the employees at the soon to be new Embassy should reflect the diplomatic needs of the region, and hence the reconstruction. The project of rebuilding and reestablishing Iraqi infrastructure and democracy should be of integral priority and not be skewed by politics.

Andrew Zajac from the Chicago Tribune disabuses us of that notion. Appointments to the CPA have been highly political and little reported.

Although many CPA posts have been held by career government civil servants, numerous crucial slots have been filled by officials with strong GOP or conservative pedigrees. Passed over, in some cases, were diplomats and foreign policy specialists with backgrounds in Middle East issues or nation-building.

In less than two weeks, the CPA is scheduled to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government. The jobs of most of the authority's 1,200 employees will be eliminated or folded into a giant U.S. Embassy under construction in Baghdad. A few positions, like Bowen's fiscal oversight of the reconstruction effort, will be preserved.

It might be years before a final verdict is in on the CPA's stewardship of Iraq, and on whether the composition of the authority played a part in the outcome, for better or worse.

This really gives credence to the conspiratorial argument that war-profiteering may have been a driving aspect behind the Iraq war.

But already even some supporters of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq say the occupation's troubled course and the country's uncertain prospects for stable self-rule can be traced at least in part to a leadership team that valued political credentials over foreign policy expertise.

Occupation planners often selected "ideologues without international experience who see the world through blinders," said Peter Galbraith, a senior career diplomat and an adviser to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.

"I don't think the Iraq venture was doomed to fail," Galbraith said. "If we had had qualified people with time to plan and a coherent strategy, the situation . . . would certainly be better."

In the most ironic passage of the piece, Michael Fleisher, brother to former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, explains why crony patronage is bad:

Fleischer said he wanted to serve in Iraq because he believes Bush had embarked on "a noble path" in freeing and democratizing the country and he believed he had skills that would be helpful.

He said that from his Foreign Service stint, he was already acquainted with Paul Bremer, the presidential envoy who heads the CPA.

With an assist from his brother, Ari, who "got my resume to Bremer," Fleischer landed interviews that led to his appointment.

Among Fleischer's key tasks was training more Iraqi businessmen in the ways of U.S.-style procurement so they can land part of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction aid the U.S. has earmarked for Iraq.

Competitive bidding "is a new world for the Iraqis," Fleischer said. Under Saddam Hussein, "it was all done by cronies. The only paradigm they know is cronyism. We are teaching them that there is an alternative system with built-in checks and built-in review."

So the appointment of crucial members of the CPA is largely political. Not surprising. And the security situation in Iraq is still bad. Not surprising. That the reconstruction of Iraq isn’t going well is, I guess, not surprising. The White house, the NSC, and the Pentagon have disregarded the recommendations of the State Department to their own detriment. Troop level assessments; post war planning; managing expectations, ect, are among the areas the Bush administration failed to anticipate in the run up to war. Just imagine how much worse it could be if there wasn’t any criticism.

What America doesn't need is those who don’t think through the contingencies, don’t take into account alternative scenarios, and don’t manage properly the good will and financial aid of American citizens. The war in Iraq had, is having, and will have its benefits. But if the administration wants to start blaming someone for it’s failures in Iraq, it should take a look in the mirror.

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