Less Is More in Iraq

The Washington Post Op/Ed

As Iraqis near a deadline to unveil their new constitution, violence continues to plague the country, undercutting reconstruction and spurring talk of a U.S. military withdrawal. “Once Iraq is safely in the hands of the Iraqi people, and a government they elected under a new constitution, our troops will be able to come home with the honor they have earned,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Aug. 2.

While Washington sees the constitutional milestone as an opportunity to withdraw some forces, policymakers should not limit their downsizing to the military presence. It’s time for many of the civilians to go home as well. The embassy and contractor presence in Iraq has grown too large, and diplomacy and reconstruction have suffered as a result.

Baghdad boasts the world’s largest U.S. embassy. More than 800 diplomats and half that many intelligence officials work within the marble corridors of Saddam Hussein’s former palace. Large blast walls — so heavy that they have damaged the local sewer system — secure the neighborhood.

The ill-placed cantonment has inconvenienced a city of 5 million. A drive from middle-class Mansur to the University of Baghdad once took 15 minutes. It now takes over an hour. Ordinary Iraqis do not meet these diplomats; regulations prevent embassy personnel from leaving the Green Zone. After the November 2004 death of education adviser Jim Mollen, the embassy sent e-mails to all staff, underlining the prohibition against leaving the compound unless escorted by a military convoy. Approval, which takes three days, is no certainty. The Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to warn that “travel to and from the International Zone is extremely limited.”

Such isolation undercuts both the confidence even Iraqi political leaders have in their interlocutors and the ability of diplomats to advise. Elsewhere in the Middle East, diplomats cultivate sources. They wine and dine them. They visit each others’ homes. Their children attend the same schools. But in Iraq, while diplomats can send cables about conversations they have with Iraqi politicians inside the Green Zone convention center, where the National Assembly meets, Iraq’s power brokers hash out their deals at night and in private homes. The real Iraq cannot be seen by helicopter. Embassy cables and reports from the U.S. Agency for International Development are sterile.

Outside the Green Zone, much of the civilian presence is at best an irritant. As I was traveling down the “Highway of Death” from the airport to central Baghdad recently, traffic screeched to a halt behind a slow-moving convoy of private security contractors waving weaponry and shouting obscenities. To avoid the mess, my Iraqi driver detoured through both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, providing me an instant primer on both the resourcefulness of Iraqi commerce and its problems: gasoline black marketing, gerrymandered generators and businesses shuttered for lack of electricity — a world largely invisible to most of the outsiders roaming the area.

The civilian presence has become a drain on resources. In 2004 officials shifted a quarter of the funds allocated for water and electricity to security, which at times probably does more harm than good. In January insurgents killed a dozen Iraqis working on Baghdad’s electrical plant one day after two U.S. contractors had made a visit, escorted by an ostentatious convoy of Humvees and SUVs. A surprise visit by a single Iraqi with a digital camera would have enabled the same oversight and saved 12 lives.

A smaller embassy in Baghdad would mean more funds for Iraqis. One contractor, Research Triangle Institute International, had to shut down some of its projects to divert reconstruction funds to security. Local workers can do without the private security people whom foreign contractors employ and whose recklessness Iraqis despise. Iraqi civilians and politicians both identify the security contractors as the biggest impediment to the battle for hearts and minds. Nor would Iraqis spend aid money on unnecessary foreign personnel. Last month USAID allocated $32,000 for a driver to chauffeur the head of its mission in the protected zone. Injected into the local economy, such an amount could purchase a generator that would keep several local businesses going.

Oversight is important, but absent the ability of accountants and auditors to leave the security zone, their effectiveness is no better than if they were based in Washington. Layers of bureaucracy have not stamped out corruption among either Iraqis or Americans. A better model would be expansion of the Commander’s Emergency Relief Program, which allows U.S. military officers to disburse funds immediately to replace power lines, rehabilitate water treatment plants and renovate schools. Officers remain in the field and accountable for their decisions. In contrast, less than a third of the $18.4 billion Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, appropriated in November 2003, has been spent.

Iraqis have shown what they can accomplish without us. Today Iraqi Kurdistan is a model for the rest of the country, and yet in 1991 it was devastated by an uprising and looting. With international protection but no significant external aid for several years after, the Kurds rebuilt their region. The progress evident in Baghdad — new stores, private banks, Internet cafes — is largely despite us rather than because of us.

It would be nice to bring troops home, but many civilians should come along as well. A smaller embassy shifts responsibilities and accountability to Iraq’s new government. That is what the country’s transition to democracy should be about.

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