15 Years Later, Iraq Is a Modest Success
The debate over the Iraq War’s impact—pitting critics like President Trump against defenders like new national security adviser John Bolton —has been dramatic since the conflict began 15 years ago. Then, supporters described the war in utopian terms, as when President George W. Bush assured Americans it would be “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” Critics in America and abroad were as vehement in their pessimism. “Every Iraqi is a potential Saddam,” opined one Middle Eastern academic when asked that same year by the Economist whether democracy had a chance in Iraq.
Today’s reality is somewhere in between. Yet it is startling to note—given the series of coups that made Iraq one of worst-governed places on earth for much of the 20th century—that the country seems to be building a resilient democracy. Iraq now has a reasonable chance of joining a rarefied club: countries escorted by U.S. troops into decent governance and national success.
A few hard measures of social progress demonstrate the significant improvement of Iraqi society. Start with national income, the factor that generally determines whether other good things can happen in a nation. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Iraq’s per capita gross domestic product was 51% higher in 2017 than in 2002, the year before U.S. troops arrived. By comparison, eurozone nations grew by 11% in the same income measure during that period.
Or take the annual mortality rate, perhaps the most overarching measure of a society’s health. United Nations data show that Iraq’s mortality rate fell 18% from 2002-17.
Is Iraq a thriving nation? By no means. The fraction of the population in the labor force is low, and unemployment is around 16%. About three million residents fled their homes when ISIS took over a third of the countryside, and though many are returning now that the terror group has been nearly destroyed, homes and neighborhoods need rebuilding. As throughout Iraq’s history, graft continues to be a plague, with the nation’s bureaucracy rated as “highly corrupt” by Transparency International.
Iraq’s government must find a way to solve these problems. Which brings us to the biggest surprise, and a source of cautious hope for the nation’s future. On May 12, Iraq will conduct its fifth consecutive free national election. Only a handful of countries within a 1,000-mile radius have any tradition of competitive balloting. Saddam Hussein had dictated to Iraqis for 24 years until he was removed. Hardly any Arab governments allow fair voting. The Iranians next door hold sham elections.
As summarized in November by The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov, Iraq has “a genuine political life and a relatively free press,” and “the country is bucking the slide toward autocratic rule that has become the norm across the region.” The durability of Iraqi self-rule is especially remarkable in the face of recent shocks like the ISIS invasion, Kurdish attempts at separation, and a 55% drop in the price of oil, which makes up about half of Iraq’s economy.
The latest cheering news has been the backlash against Iranian meddling. When Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign-policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, visited Iraq in February, he was criticized angrily by many Iraqis for interfering in their nation’s affairs. The top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, refused to meet with Mr. Velayati in protest of Iran’s efforts to influence Iraqi electors.
Even former collaborators with Iran like Shiite radical Moqtada al-Sadr are now harshly critical of the way the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are trying to manipulate Iraq. The Iraqi cleric has modified his style of Islamism to court Sunnis and secular Iraqis into a nationalist alliance focused on addressing corruption and poverty. Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim is likewise promoting a new nonsectarian effort to unite Iraqis across religious and ethnic lines.
On the opposite side, leaders of some pro-Iranian Shiite militias will soon test the popularity of continued sectarianism as candidates in the May election. But Iraq’s dominant Shiites are no longer acting as a monolithic tribal bloc. They are maturing into voters who define themselves by policy divergences. That is a healthy development.
Similar reshuffling is taking place among Iraqi Kurds, many of whom were so annoyed by Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s self-aggrandizement and failure to relinquish power at the end of his term that they acquiesced in the Iraqi army’s recent reassertion of control over Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas.
This breakdown of unbending tribal allegiances is allowing a much richer national politics, based on problem-solving and rule of law rather than blood and soil. Iraq’s next ruling party and prime minister will emerge at the head of a broad, complex coalition. The new government will promise many things to many different kinds of Iraqis. The governing process will be messy, and wholly successful efforts will be rare.
But in this mercurial part of the world, that kind of checked-and-balanced rule that protects minorities and different viewpoints represents progress. While tribal preferences and favors will continue, there will be chances for prudent leaders like current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to extend Iraq’s income rise and the decline in mortality. Reformers can press for improvements in education and health care, and rebuilding neighborhoods.
If today’s trends continue for another 15 years, Iraq’s representative government and economic growth will become impossible for neighbors like Iran and Syria—and perhaps also Turkey and Saudi Arabia—to overlook.
Mr. Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter in Iraq from 2003-06 and served as White House chief domestic policy adviser, 2006-09.