Sunday, December 14, 2008

Iraq Reconstruction

The New York Times had an article today about Iraq reconstruction.  Titled "Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders", the article discusses an as-yet-unpublished Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) report that covers the entire reconstruction history, starting in 2001.  Which, as you may remember, is long before Bush started talking publicly about military action against Iraq.  The article itself is a bit disjointed, but it contains some teaser quotes that are interesting.  Much more interesting is the fact that they have the full report available online as a pdf download.  Or you can read it right there on the web page.  But since it's 508 pages long, you better make yourself comfortable.

My job is involved in reconstruction, and I deal with SIGIR on a fairly regular basis, so I'm always interested in what they have to say.  (Note that I have a link to the SIGIR site in my sidebar).  So as soon as I spotted this report, I dove right into it.  Most of you won't unless you're a policy wonk.  As noted, it's over 500 frickin' pages.  

I've only gotten a little way into it, but am already seeing some very damning information.  Not about reconstruction, but about the Bush administration, specifically that idiot Rumsfeld, and how much of this mess we're in now is directly attributable to him.  And this SIGIR report is from a guy who's a Republican political appointee!  However, it is not a political hack job.  The information in here is carefully researched and based on interviews with the people involved, including Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, his aides, Ryan Crocker (the ambassador to Iraq), and hundreds of others.  And it's based on their papers and notes, all very well footnoted.  In fact, I spoke this evening with one of the people involved in putting this report together - it was a 2-year-plus effort.  In other words, it's as accurate as humanely possible, and it will become a staple for Iraq War researchers for years to come.

The same cannot be said for the Times' article.  The writers went for sensationalism at the expense of accuracy.  The article starts off with the inflammatory statement that calls the reconstruction effort a "$100 billion failure".  Now, excuse me, but that's completely out of line.  Yes, it was poorly planned (actually, not really "planned" at all), subject to political intrigues, delayed by violence, suffered considerable waste, chaotic, and often not in line with reality.  However, even SIGIR realizes that there has been a lot of good stuff done.

Take, for example, the Sadr City R3 water treatment plant.  This plant cost US taxpayers a bundle (about $66M), but it is online now and providing water for almost 200,000 people in the Sadr City slums.  That doesn't sound like failure to me and it didn't to SIGIR when they did a report on it recently.  We've built over 130 primary health care clinics.  We've built a ton of schools, courthouses, humane prison facilities, sewage treatment plants, electrical power stations, electrical substations, roads, bridges, airport facilities, hospitals, you name it, we've probably built it.  We built a security system around their oil export lines that paid for itself in less than a week.  I'd say the large majority of projects that we funded are currently being used for what they were intended.

As the SIGIR report notes, the Republican-led Congress voted overwhelmingly to throw vast sums of money at Iraq for reconstruction, even though there was no coherent plan for how it would be used.  The money went to military and civilian officials who were dumped into the deep end and had to make it up as they went along.  They had to use their own experience, skills, and judgement to figure out what projects were most needed and then get them done.  And once projects were started, the vast majority were completed.  By SIGIR's own figures, only a small percentage (less than 20%) of projects were terminated for any reason: bombings, the security situation, incompetent contractors, whatever.  And this in a country that was undergoing a civil war the whole time.  

Yes, SIGIR and GAO and others can go back and find all kinds of fault with the way these projects were done.  There's plenty of blame to go around and they're still finding it.  That's their job.  But even SIGIR doesn't call the Iraq reconstruction effort a $100 billion failure".  It's not.  My predecessors did a helluva job with in very trying circumstances with no master plan to guide them.  They invented it and made it work.  And that's the American way, isn't it?

The New York Times writers owe the military and civilians who accomplished this remarkable feat a great big apology.


Shea said...
read this and you'll see where the current administrations prioritys are, don't let them fool you

Shea said...

Did you get to see Bush?
Some guy threw his shoes at him when he and Maliki were at a press conference.