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Destination Baghdad

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
7 August 2003

Is the Coalition winning the peace in Iraq? This question, on the minds of many American and British officials and citizens, as well as others around the world, has been the subject of numerous commentaries and recent studies by think-tanks and advocacy groups. To begin to answer this question, the next few issues of our openDemocracy humanitarian monitor will be based on our visit to Iraq in late August 2003.

Virtually all of the recent studies of international efforts in Iraq underscore the importance of achieving public security and the rule of law, encouraging a political transition that empowers Iraqis, building trust between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the local population, providing humanitarian needs in Iraq, and finding ways to share the burden with international partners.

How to get from here to there with respect to these recommendations can be tricky, of course, in circumstances where a high security imperative creates a gulf between international administrators and ordinary Iraqis. This in turn results in a disconnection between the international effort and the “street”, what some Iraqi expatriates have called “reconstruction by e-mail”. As one expatriate who visited his home country for three weeks in July explained to Arthur Helton, “assessments are based on what international personnel know, not on what people really need.” This former exile found the mix of emergency response expertise in Iraq to outweigh sorely needed development expertise.

Nevertheless, by many accounts, CPA head L. Paul Bremer is doing a good job under difficult circumstances, the UN has a very strong team in Iraq, and things, even in Baghdad, are reportedly getting a little better day-by-day. We shall see.

State-building and the operational difficulties in implementing humanitarian assistance are really hard tasks. Audacious challenges have been presented in a variety of efforts by the international community over the past decade, ranging from Cambodia to Bosnia, to ensure security, establish justice systems, achieve a minimum provision of public services and infrastructure, create sustainable civil administrations, manage the transition to democratic governance, and revive shattered economies.

Modesty in expectation has proven to be a leitmotif for such ambitious international humanitarian endeavours. These involvements have proven messy, complicated, and difficult to quit. One thing is clear. There is a paucity of tools in the policy toolbox, which seems on display once again in the very high-profile setting in Iraq. Clearly, new capacities are needed, within and among governments as well as international organisations, if state-building is to be seriously pursued in the future.

But the difficulty of the effort in Iraq does not dampen the enthusiasm of an Iraqi expatriate who spoke to Arthur Helton and who is planning to return to take a job to work on the country’s recovery. “There is a good deal of frustration and hopelessness, but also a recognition that there is an opportunity, but one that could be slipping away”, he noted.

Much is at stake in Iraq for its people; but also politically for the presidency of George W. Bush, the prestige of the United States, Britain and their allies, and the future of the Middle East more generally. Peace in Iraq is simply too important to lose.

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