The Magazine

The Bumpy Road to Democracy in Iraq

From the April 5, 2004 issue: It's not easy recovering from generations of despotism.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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Two incidents dominated the Iraqi press in late March. In one, six soldiers were charged with assaulting detainees at a military prison, a breakdown in discipline that infuriated the top American commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and the chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. In the other, two Iraqis working for al-Arabia TV were killed in a clash at a checkpoint. The exact details were unclear.

Bremer and Kimmitt went to unprecedented lengths to soothe Iraqi anger over the killings, quickly ordering an independent investigation. They met privately with Iraqi journalists. And Kimmitt discussed the case at briefings on the record. The point is he and Bremer didn't play down or ignore the incident. This got them nowhere with Iraqi journalists, who have reacted hysterically. Their questions at briefings are mostly of the why-are-you-Americans-picking-on-Iraqis variety. They rarely inquire about the progress of investigations of terrorist attacks.

The new Iraqi media are as close as you can get to a proxy for the Iraqi people, at least in the Baghdad area. Iraqi reporters have been coddled by the military and Bremer's CPA in hopes they'll evolve into a responsible free press. TV reporters were given millions of dollars of state-of-the-art equipment. At briefings, Iraqis get a simultaneous translation, and they're allowed to ask most of the questions. Special backgrounders are conducted for them. A group of Iraqi reporters meets weekly with Bremer, a break American journalists don't get.

The experiment hasn't worked. When Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared at a press conference here last week, the Iraqis called for a moment of silence for the two dead TV journalists. Then one read a tendentious statement, complaining the United States has neither made Iraq safer nor stopped terrorism. This was followed by a walkout, as Powell stood silently and watched. Several days later, the entire Iraqi press corps marched on the "green zone," the American headquarters, with a letter of protest for Bremer. Rather than professionalized, the Iraqi press has become politicized.

True, Iraqi journalists act better than they did months ago, when all the questions were barely disguised accusations or simply based on rumor. Journalism training provided by the CPA and other organizations has helped. But a journalism teacher in Iraq wrote in the Washington Post that her students cling to the idea that their job is to read the news--not report it--and then comment on it. Likewise, Iraqis watch the news about the occupation, then comment on it, negatively.

I'VE DWELT ON THE BAD NEWS. The truth is the difficulty with Iraqis--their whining, their ethnic squabbling, their anti-Americanism--hasn't diverted Bremer from his relentless nation-building. He knows the Iraqi attitude problem can't be solved overnight. And while the security environment here is dodgy, the only downside of terrorist attacks on the creation of a new Iraq has been to discourage foreign companies from rushing in with large-scale projects. In short, the American intervention is so powerful and all-encompassing that it overshadows everything else. It is strongly led by Bremer, well organized, and undaunted. The CPA has spread teams of experts, academics, administrators, bureaucrats, and consultants throughout the restructured Iraqi government and private sector. Visit the new central bank and they're there. Travel to Kurdistan and you'll run into them.

I didn't understand the breadth of the effort until I noticed a press officer's list of phone numbers of senior advisers in various fields. The fields were agriculture, standards and quality control, culture, displaced persons, education, electricity, environment, finance, foreign affairs, health, higher education, housing, human rights, industry, interior, water, justice, labor, security, oil, public works, planning, religious affairs, science, trade, transportation, youth and sports, Baghdad, civil affairs, governance, Iraqi media, oil policy, infrastructure, private sector, and strategic communications. Amazing.

The most encouraging trend in Iraq is solid economic growth, sure to be followed by torrid growth. The economy was run into the ground by Saddam. The GDP for 2003 was $20 billion, less than Americans receive from the Earned Income Tax Credit. Unemployment, as best anyone can tell, exceeded 60 percent. Already GDP for 2004 is expected to reach $24 billion or $25 billion, and joblessness has dipped below 30 percent, according to Bill Block, a Princeton-educated economist for the Treasury Department now working for the CPA. Bremer thinks unemployment may have already fallen to less than 20 percent.