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Reality Check

14 January 2004

 

This week I would like to deviate from my normal flowery musings to speak specifically about just what it is I’m doing in Iraq.  I am an army civil affairs officer working and living in Baghdad.  Civil Affairs is part of Special Operations Command, but unlike the Special Forces or Ranger Regiment guys, I do not engage in nighttime freefalls or underwater knife fights.  Rather, my specialty is economic development.  I am part of the winning the hearts and minds side of things, or as our branch motto states, I am here to help “secure the victory.” 

In my opinion, most of the problems in Iraq stem from the poor economic situation.  Just as the Klan in America had its highest levels of enrollment during Reconstruction and the Great Depression—two periods where there was a large population of single, unemployed, young men whose pride had been severely wounded—so too are some Iraqis susceptible to rabble rousing because they feel as if they’ve got nothing to lose.  My job is to help get Iraqi companies working again and to assist foreign companies interested in doing business in the New Iraq.  If guys are working and improving their standard of living, they have neither the time nor the inclination to pick up a gun or plant an improvised explosive device.

To that end, I founded the Iraqi Business Center as a way to identify local talent across all fields of endeavor.  When coalition contracting authorities need subcontractors, suppliers, or service providers, they come to the IBC to link up with the folks who can do the job.  Likewise, if an international company wishes to find an Iraqi partner, they can contact the business center for help.  We have a website, www.iraqibusinesscenter.org, which contains a screened, detailed directory of Iraqi companies.  (This site, incidentally was designed and built by a shop in Baghdad.)  With a few clicks of the mouse, one can find, for example, concrete suppliers in Basra or a list of florists in Mosul.  With another click, you can send them all an email.  (Yes, Iraqis have email.)

Additionally, the business center provides assistance to entrepreneurs and businesswomen.  We are working with the University of Baghdad’s College of Administration and Economics to modernize their curriculum, library, and information management systems.  We are also developing a guidebook to Iraq that will offer the international business community information on everything from hotels and taxis to law firms and security services.  We are going to take the mystery and fear out of doing business in this once mysterious and scary country. 

This experience has been personally rewarding and incredibly educational.  To paraphrase Bismarck, I’ve had the chance to see how the sausage is made.  My job has given me the opportunity to work with senior officials from the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and Defense, along with the executive staff of agencies such as the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Development Corporation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Thousands of Iraqi and international firms have contacted me since May and dozens of international media organizations have routinely stopped by to check on our progress.

There is a sense of urgency and an intensity that permeates the effort over here. 

Failure truly is not an option.  Progress is being made.  Pepsi Cola and Procter & Gamble have come to town.  A tidal wave of reconstruction money is about to hit the economy.  Shops and restaurants and marketplaces have reopened.  Iraqis are bidding on and winning lucrative contracts.  There is a cautious optimism among the locals I meet who believe that the various initiatives on tap in 2004 will give them an opportunity at long last to rejuvenate their country and themselves.