Thursday, September 2, 2010

What David Brooks Got Wrong About Iraq

President Obama’s speech that combat operations were over in Iraq on August 31, 2010 obviously generated a huge number of editorials and opinion pieces. One of the more egregious was by David Brooks, “Nation Building Works” in the New York Times. Brooks’ thesis was that the rebuilding of the Iraqi state after the overthrow of Saddam was on the right track, but his lack of sources undermined his point.

Brooks uses the Brookings Institutions’ Iraq Index and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report to list a number of successes since the 2003 U.S. invasion. In 2010 the IMF believes that Iraq will have 7% economic growth, making it the 12th fastest expanding economy in the world. Inflation is low, there should be a budget surplus in 2012, unemployment is still high at 15%, but that’s lower than before. All of this is largely due to the recovery of the oil industry, which Brooks said is nearly at prewar levels. For living standards, Brooks cites 1.3 million Iraqis that have landline phone service, 20 million cell phone users, and 1.7 million connected to the internet. Electricity production is up 40% compared to pre-war levels, but that still does not meet demand. Iraqis also have more access to other services such as trash collection and the fire department than in previous years. The security forces are 600,000 strong and have greatly improved their capabilities. In terms of political progress, Iraq ranks fourth in the Middle East Index of Political Freedom put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and a 2009 poll found that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want a democracy rather than an Islamic state. Overall, Brooks thinks that economic growth, basic security, and the establishment of political institutions makes Iraq a success story even though there is still plenty of work to be done.

There are several problems with Brooks’ argument. First, the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction considers the rebuilding of Iraq a failure. The Bush administration did not adequately plan, nor coordinate its post-war program. The lack of security undermined the entire effort causing huge cost overruns, the abandonment of some projects, and led to a huge transfer of funds to building the country’s security forces rather than the economy and services. Iraqis were also rarely consulted, bad contracts and mismanagement led to huge amounts of waste, and there was a lack of unity of command and coordination between the different U.S. agencies involved. Its hard for Brooks to say that Iraq is a success if the main U.S. agency tasked with reviewing the reconstruction of the country does not feel that it worked. Second, as Brooks himself writes, all of Iraq’s economic growth is based upon oil. Petroleum accounts for 70% of the GDP, but only 1-2% of the workforce. It provides 90% of the government’s revenue, but Baghdad doesn’t have the capacity to invest most of that money into infrastructure. The growth in the economy is also largely due to oil prices recovering from the world recession rather than any increase in production or exports. Iraq, like many oil dependent countries, has huge natural wealth that simply does not trickle down to the average citizen, so numbers on economic growth, etc. are misleading. Third, Brooks’ selection of topics for living standards is a bit odd, but is caused by his reliance upon the Iraq Index that does not really cover humanitarian issues well. While telephone land lines are obviously important, cell phone and internet access seem to be an indicator of consumer spending more than anything else. If Brooks had taken the time to consult the United Nations he would’ve found that Iraq is towards the bottom of the region in many humanitarian categories such as literacy, infant mortality, and maternal deaths. Its education system has fallen apart, and it has high poverty rates, and youth unemployment. That makes Iraq a rather typical Third World nation.

What led to the unraveling of Brooks’ argument was not his examples, but his sources. It’s true that Iraq’s economy is growing and that security has greatly improved, but that only tells one small part of what’s going on within the country. If Brooks had looked at more agencies, he might’ve found that Iraq is at the bottom of the region in many humanitarian issues, that it’s economy is afflicted by the oil curse of vast wealth, but few jobs and development, and that the chief reconstruction watchdog in the U.S. government thinks that the U.S. failed to rebuild the country. Iraq is no longer a failed state as it once was when the sectarian civil war was raging. Today it is a poor and struggling country like many others in the world, with a huge terrorist problem, which makes it hard to consider Iraq a success story.


Brookings Institution, “Iraq Index,” 8/24/10

Brooks, David, “Nation Building Works,” New York Times, 8/30/10

Cooper, Helene and Stolberg, Sheryl Gay, “Obama Declares an End to Combat Mission in Iraq,” New York Times, 8/31/10

International Monetary Fund, “Iraq: Staff Report for the 2009 Article IV Consultation and Request for Stand-By Arrangement,” March 2010

Al-Mada, “Reasons behind High Unemployment in Iraq,” MEMRI Blog, 6/1/10

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, "Hard Lessons," January 2010
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/10


AndrewSshi said...

Well, this is part of the larger narrative that the American right is trying to paint that goes something like: "Iraq was a victory, darn it! A victory!" In the narrowly technical sense--al Douri won't be marching triumphantly into the Green Zone anytime soon--that's correct, but it's a narrative that tends to involve papering over the massive humanitarian and economic costs of the war.

Don Cox said...

I think Brooks is saying the glass is half full and you are saying it is half empty.

Joel Wing said...


I'm not denying that things have changed in Iraq and some things have gotten better, but really, who are you going to believe about the success of nation building in Iraq. David Brooks who looked at the Iraq Index an an IMF report for a day to write a column to go along with Obama's speech or the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction who has been looking at Iraq everyday for the last 5+ years?