Freedom's Reign?

At least now Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III can go home and buy a decent pair of shoes. He had on a blue suit over the usual incongruous hiking boots when he attended the furtive handover ceremony at which he formally ended the American occupation of Iraq and granted sovereignty to Iraq's interim government. For his 13 months as the American administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), he wore those boots. Was there mud in his armored car, or on the floorplates of his Blackhawk? Was he making that many tours of the farmlands of the Two Rivers? Even Iraqi officials who were disposed to like him, marveled at those boots. They were, at least, a constant reminder that this was a war zone, as if anyone here needed to be reminded.

The ceremony itself was a fitting expression of the spin with which American officials have at least managed to persuade some of their friends, and perhaps even themselves, that all is well in Iraq. Officials at the CPA's Office of Strategic Communications relentlessly depicted the event as proof that the new Iraqi government was doing so well that it was ready for sovereignty two days ahead of schedule. Nonsense: things are going so badly that the American administration felt compelled to mark the historic event with a ceremony that was brief, held in secret, and timed to trick the insurgents into not attacking and marring the television imagery.

Nearly 1,000 coalition lives and tens of billions of dollars later, American authorities had to sneak out of the country. They had governed it neither long nor well, so it was especially appropriate that they muddled up the ceremony as well. Pool reporters covering the event were given contradictory instructions by CPA handlers, and at first didn't even file to their hundreds of colleagues kept from the small-scale event. At an undisclosed location inside the Green Zone, Bremer, his British counterpart David Richmond, the Iraqi Prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and the president, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, plus a couple other Iraqi officials, drank tea and coffee and then Bremer read a statement: "We welcome Iraq's steps to take its rightful place with sovereignty and honor among the free nations of the world. Sincerely, L. Paul Bremer, ex-administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority." The "ex-administrator" bit was delivered as a laugh line, with the desired if somewhat strained result.

Just how bad things are was underscored by a decision to immediately close most Iraqi goverment and official offices until the end of the week. Workers at Baghdad International Airport were told to stay home until July 6th, presumably to make it harder for insurgents to infiltrate the airport, which they've done repeatedly. Last weekend a C-130 transport was holed by ground fire as it took off, killing one of the passengers, so it wasn't an unreasonable precaution. But it's a telling sign that after a year of military occupation, Iraqis can celebrate their at least nominal independence with no safe connection to the outside world. Despite repeated attempts to pacify the two-mile-long airport highway, including defoliating the verges, it remains the most dangerous stretch of road in Iraq--with daily attacks on travelers along it. What's more, that highway is also the main road leading to Camp Victory, the American military headquarters in Iraq.

And what kind of country are we handing back to the Iraqis? Oil exports are still moribund, thanks to repeated, successful attacks on pipelines, which 138,000 coalition troops and 14,000 private oil-industry security guards and squadrons of helicopters and jet fighters can't seem to protect. A country with the world's second largest reserves is forced to import gasoline from neighboring Jordan, which has no oil reserves, and sell it to its citizens at a fraction of the cost, due to the huge expense of trucking it in safely--and fear of riots at the pumps if the costs are passed on. Reconstruction in general is stalled in large part, as the many foreign companies that flocked to Iraq to do the job are spending ever-growing proportions of their budgets on protecting their own staffs. Kellogg Brown and Root, one of the largest contractors, is retracting into the Green Zone next month, as many other major contractors already have done.

Despite all the money being pumped in, unemployment among Iraqis remains in the high double digits. The safe and secure environment the United States promised is yet to materialize; no foreigner is safe anywhere except under very heavy guard. And Iraqis are bedeviled by unchecked street crime, random bombings and widespread kidnappings for profit--even when they're not being targeted as collaborators. The electric grid is still unable to supply the country for more than a few hours a day, and generation of power hasn't yet reached goals promised for last summer--just as the really severe hot weather begins this summer.

Materially, most Iraqis were better off under Saddam, however glad they are to see the end of his regime. And when it comes to the loftiest of purposes, the U.S. aim to bring democracy to the heart of a region almost entirely without it--well, as any Iraqi will immediately tell you, Abu Ghraib and a host of other dubious actions by Americans in Iraq have given democracy a bad name, perhaps permanently. An Oxford International Poll taken in May and June found for the first time that a majority of Iraqis, some 59 percent, think the war was a mistake and the United States should never have invaded. A whopping 80 percent express no confidence in American or British forces, and 58 percent oppose a continued foreign presence.

But nor do most Iraqis think that the United States should pull out precipitously (two-thirds say U.S. troops need to stay for now); it's way too late for that, and no one wants the civil war that would almost certainly follow any premature withdrawal. The interim government, they recognize, will need the coalition's support until its own security services can take over the job. And no one has any illusions that the morphing of the CPA into the world's largest embassy, with 1,000 employees, will mean the United States won't have a very heavy hand in how the country is managed. Even the new government's press releases are still issued by many of the same CPA officials, with a little disclaimer that they're being issued on behalf of the interim government or the American embassy.

Despite that, and despite their country's many intractable problems, Iraqis seem to be putting a great deal of faith in their new government--or they're at least willing to give it the benefit of some large doubts. Allawi, who once barely outscored Saddam Hussein in popularity polls, is now widely and surprisingly popular. Most Iraqis are remarkably hopeful that their own government can do better than Bremer and his often conspicuously incompetent band of amateur nation-builders. Perhaps, they feel, it would be hard to do worse.