Monday, September 06, 2010

Apparently, starvation blockades are bad for the economy. Who knew?

David Brooks has a column in The New York Times entitled "Nation Building Works," in which he attempts to vindicate the US government's past seven years in Iraq. From the article (via Cheryl Cline at der Blaustrumpf):

“Iraq has made substantial progress since 2003,” the International Monetary Fund reports. Inflation is reasonably stable. A budget surplus is expected by 2012. Unemployment, though still 15 percent, is down from stratospheric levels...

Living standards are also improving. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, the authoritative compendium of data on this subject, 833,000 Iraqis had phones before the invasion. Now more than 1.3 million have landlines and some 20 million have cellphones. Before the invasion, 4,500 Iraqis had Internet service. Now, more than 1.7 million do.

In the most recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Iraqis rated their personal finances positively, up from 36 percent in March 2007. Baghdad residents say the markets are vibrant again, with new electronics, clothing and even liquor stores...

In short, there has been substantial progress on the things development efforts can touch most directly: economic growth, basic security, and political and legal institutions. After the disaster of the first few years, nation building, much derided, has been a success. When President Obama speaks to the country on Iraq, he’ll be able to point to a large national project that has contributed to measurable, positive results.

Brooks attributes this to American nation-building efforts in Iraq, and says that President Obama should follow the advice of "serious Iraq hands" and keep American forces in the country.

I'm not surprised to hear that the Iraqi economy has improved since the invasion. I question how much of that has to do with American nation-building, however. I have a simpler explanation: It's easier to breathe when you're not being strangled.

From 1990 until Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003, the economy of Iraq was effectively cut off from the rest of the world due to U.N. sanctions that prevented the importation of anything except medicine and food "in humanitarian circumstances." This was supposed to serve the dual purpose of preventing Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction and tormenting the Iraqi people until they obligingly got rid of Hussein for us.

Iraq's economy had been built around the export of oil and so was more dependent than most countries on international trade, and it's civilian infrastructure was devastated in the Gulf War. The result of this was economic and societal collapse, the neglect and breakdown of facilities and equipment using modern technology, a fall in per-capita income to a small fraction of its former level, declining literacy rates, and hundreds of thousands of deaths from malnutrition, disease, and lack of clean water.

The Iraq the United States and its allies invaded in 2003 was already a shattered wreck before the first shot was fired. This isn't mentioned as much as it ought to be, I suspect because there's so much blame to go around. Democrats can't point out that the two Bushes enforced a policy that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people unless they're willing to call Bill Clinton a mass murderer right alongside them, and Republicans are in a similar bind. Likewise, partisans of the United Nations can't condemn the United States for the effects of the embargo without simultaneously damning the U.N., and vice versa.

Giving credit for economic progress in Iraq to foreign aid seems plausible if you imagine that the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of foreign troops and aid is the only important factor that has changed between 2003 and 2010. Things get a little more complicated once you recall that, prior to the invasion, the same governments to which Brooks gives credit for Iraq's recovery were enforcing a policy that amounted to the systematic destruction of Iraq's economy and technological infrastructure. Of course, considering the implications of that requires contemplating the idea that whatever prosperity Iraqis enjoy now exists in spite of the interventions of the technocratic government elite that Brooks' career is dedicated to defending, rather than because of them.

So, yes, it's heartening to know that Iraq is not as wretchedly poor as it used to be now that the world's greatest military power is no longer actively working to drive it into the Stone Age. I'm sure David Brooks and all the other "serious" political thinkers who cheered on the murderous slow-motion strangulation of the Iraqi people must be very proud of their benevolence.

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