Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iraq: Operation Wasted Hope

A couple of days ago I said that there’s only one meaningful way to assess the overall balance of pros and cons following the war. And yesterday I said I’d post a perspective on why the (many) cons weren’t foreseeable all along. These come from the same source.

‘The Iraqi people’ have been invoked in support of one view or another for the whole four years and more; it’s worth looking at what they actually think. Why should we in the West argue about whether the rising sectarian violence outweighs the new political freedoms or vice versa when we can ask Iraqis how they see it? And if we don’t agree about the predictability of the problems, why not get the people most familiar with the situation and the background to offer their predictions?

In February 2004, the Oxford Research Institute (using Iraqi interviewers) conducted a poll of Iraqis [PDF]. People were asked how “things overall in your life” compared with a year ago, before the war. 57% said things were better and 19% said things were worse.

A similar poll [PDF] in November 2005 found some setbacks. The same question elicited 51% who felt things were better and 29% who felt things were worse than before the war. This poll also added a question about how people judged “things in Iraq overall” – here, there was a less encouraging lead of 46% to 39% for ‘better’.

Polls always have to be taken with pinches of salt, but this does suggest that the people whose interests were supposed to be paramount tended to think that the trade-off was a good one.

Their judgement has changed. A new poll [PDF], this time by D3 Systems, asked the same questions in February–March 2007. It found that just 33% now think their lives are better overall – and 36% think they’re worse – than before the war. As for views of Iraq as a whole, 38% now say things are better and 40% say worse.

The polls also give us an interesting take on whether the violence and disorder following the war were predictable. If, as it is said, looming problems were clear at the time of the war, then they should have been even clearer a year later.

The February 2004 poll – which recorded an assessment of improvement thus far – asked about the future: “What is your expectation for how things overall in your life will be in a year from now?” 71% expected things to be better; 7% expected worse.

By November 2005, optimism had dipped but not collapsed. 54% expected their lives to get better in the following year against 13% who expected things would get worse. This second poll asked about expectations of “how things will be for Iraq as a country overall a year from now”: 69% thought better, 11% thought worse.

So, even given considerable evidence – that of their own eyes, every day – of what was going wrong, Iraqis continued for some time to assess that what was going right meant their lives were better overall. And, unlike the Western anti-war protestors who were eager to shriek doom and disaster at every setback for security, the people who were meant to be insecure took a different of how things were likely to work out.

Again, things have changed more recently. The 2007 poll found 35% expecting their lives to get better over the next year and 32% expecting worsening; for the country as a whole, 38% think things will improve and 40% think things will get worse. This doesn’t seem too dire, but we must remember that the rest expect things to stay about the same as now – and that big majorities think their lives and Iraq overall are bad now. It’s not a pretty picture.

As I say, polls have to be viewed with care. But there is another measure we can look at. It’s perhaps more reliable than polling data, as it represents Iraqis betting their lives.

The UN High Commission for Refugees reported in January 2007: “Between 2003 and 2005, more than 253,000 Iraqis did return home… from other countries. Now, however, the returns have stopped and many more people are fleeing”. The UNHCR estimated in November 2006 that “425,000 Iraqis have fled their homes for other areas inside Iraq this year alone… And internal displacement is continuing at a rate of some 50,000 a month.” Figures on those fleeing the country were imprecise, but they judged that “now some 2,000 a day are arriving in Syria, and an estimated 1,000 a day in Jordan.” That’s about 60,000 a month to those two countries.

This is a tragedy: not just because things have got worse, but because they’d got better first. The early improvement – and expectation of continued improvement, as voted for with their feet by Iraqis – goes to show that chaos wasn’t the inevitable result of war. It resulted from a dysfunctional occupation that gave spoiler groups the opening they needed to plant the seeds of disorder.

I’ll wind up tomorrow with a look at a couple of other views on how Saddam should have been dealt with.

(This is the fifth in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fourth and sixth.)

No comments: