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Staying the Course

09 December 2004

I just returned from a six-day trip to Baghdad.  One of the changes I noticed immediately was in the way one gets from the airport west of the city to the Green Zone in the city center.  The embassy no longer offers ground transportation, because the route is too dangerous.  To travel the roughly ten kilometers between the two points requires a lift on a helicopter.  This is bad news in terms of the overall security situation, but good news for those, like myself, who enjoy the thrill of a helicopter, magic carpet ride over Baghdad. 

If you hate to fly and insist on going via ground transport, there are private security firms that will take you from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to anywhere you’d like to go in the Iraqi capital via stealth vehicles.  I watched some well-dressed Western businessmen get picked up at the arrival level of BIAP in a beat-up, 20-year-old van, complete with Iraqi license plates, Koranic verse detailing, and tinted black windows.  It looked like most automobiles you see clunking around Baghdad, but inside were three very white, very fit, very armed security personnel who hustled the men into the van, slammed the sliding door shut, and slipped unnoticed into rush-hour traffic.  I thought the whole thing was rather clever.

Being a government type, I could not take the habibi van, and unfortunately I missed the last helicopter ride of the day into the Green Zone.   So I had to sleep in a transient tent at the army’s Camp Stryker at the airport.  The next morning at chow, I ran into two soldiers from my old New York National Guard unit, the 69th Infantry.  They gave me the sad news that they’d lost another one of their brothers-in-arms the night prior to an improvised explosive device.  After that bit of information, there really wasn’t anything that seemed dignified enough to be talking about, so I moved on over to the flight line to wait for the arrival of the Blackhawk that would take me to the embassy.   

As I was cracking pistachio nuts in a holding pen near the tarmac, I heard a huge explosion coming from the east.  I couldn’t see any plume of black smoke, but the noise was as loud as someone slamming the door in the room you’re in now.  Later that day I found out that a suicide car bomb had gone off at a checkpoint near the Convention Center and Al Rashid Hotel.  Several Iraqis who were waiting to get into the Green Zone to get to their jobs as translators or contractors with the Americans were killed and many more were maimed.   

Altogether, the beginning of my trip was rather glum. 

Once inside the embassy, I found an open computer terminal and logged on to my email.  A national reporter acquaintance of mine, who reads my stories in this space, asked me when I was going to write my insider’s tell all.  “You’ve been around this since the beginning and I’m sure you’ve got some juicy information,” he wrote.  “Hell, I hear from good sources that even Bremer is working on a book detailing what went wrong.”  That last bit surprised and disappointed me.  How could anyone, let alone the former head of this whole operation, be writing the obituary of Operation Iraqi Freedom already?  How depressing.   

My mood changed, however, once I got down to business.  Over the course of the next five days, I met with leaders from several government agencies and Iraqi ministries to get an idea of how their different projects were progressing.  Without exception, everyone with whom I met had a good story to tell.  Three-hundred-thousand more homes in Baghdad had electricity now than the last time I visited.  The number of people with telephone service was higher than before the war.  Water mains that had been dormant since 1962 had opened.  A plan to launch vocational training centers across the country had just been funded and was now in the execution phase.  (I remarked that perhaps “execution phase” was not the best choice of words given the current hostilities.)  Voter registration centers were open in 90% of the country.  A large number of Iraqi farmers were due to head out to America for training and to meet potential investors.  There were plenty more, but for the sake of space, I will suspend the list here. 

None of these things are reported on TV.  None of them.  Granted, in an imaged-based medium, loan schemes to small and medium-sized enterprises and new network switching packages aren’t all that stimulating to the eye.  But I don’t ever read about this stuff in print either.  What is going on here?  There are over 10,000 civilians working in the Green Zone alone on various economic, infrastructure, and political development projects, yet based on the media coverage, you’d think there were only soldiers on the ground.  As I sat in the embassy mess hall eating a rather juiceless pork chop with a white plastic knife and double-stacked flimsy plastic forks, it dawned on me that the “war in Iraq” is a misnomer.  “The project in Iraq” is much more accurate. 

What we are doing in Iraq is a long-term project.  It is the event of a generation, such as building the Golden Gate Bridge or sending a man to the moon.  We are attempting to help give birth to a democracy where none has existed before.  We are seeking to elevate the status of women from second-class citizen to full equal.  We are renovating electrical, water, sewer, communications, and transportation infrastructures that have been neglected for years.  We are working to revitalize the farmlands so that Iraq can return to its historic position of breadbasket of the Middle East.  We are freeing a people from fear and oppression.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was widely criticized for calling the project in Iraq a “long, hard slog.”  But it is also worth remembering that upon announcing his plan of sending a man to the moon before the 1960s were out, President Kennedy told the nation that “we choose not to do this because it is easy, but because it is hard.”  Of course what we are doing is hard.  But so was building the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoover Dam.  So was standing up against the British at Concord and Lexington or storming the beaches at Normandy.  Every generation of Americans faces an impossible challenge.  Shall we be the first to shrink from ours?   

The thousands of Americans, both civilian and military, working in Iraq think not.  Their work goes on, largely unheralded.  The people that are there now serve not for personal glory (or to achieve a cabinet position) but because the project in Iraq is a most noble undertaking.  It is a cause to which these visionary Americans and patriotic Iraqis have dedicated their efforts and risked their lives.  The work will not be completed soon, and there will be many setbacks and mishaps along the way.  Men fell from the Golden Gate.  The first Apollo capsule burned up on the launch pad.   Advancing past the hedgerows in Normandy took weeks.  In Iraq, the airport road closes and innocents are lost to car bombs. 

In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, a former senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority named Larry Diamond published an essay entitled “What Went Wrong in Iraq.”  The guy was in country only three months.  Now he’s making a name for himself by joining the bandwagon of handwringers.  We have no need for the short-tour senior advisors or sunshine policy wonks.  Yes, the challenge in Iraq is great.  But so, too, are the people there confronting it.