War Stories

Bush’s Rosy Spin on Iraq’s Economy

And the pesky facts that undercut it.

Good-news statistics, but bad-news trends

As President George W. Bush gave the second of four speeches on his “strategy for victory in Iraq” this morning, the delicacy of his underlying strategy—for political victory at home—became clear. On the one hand, he has to convince an increasingly wary nation that we are making real progress in Iraq. On the other hand, he has to concede we haven’t made that much progress. The upshot of the two lines, taken together, is that we can’t get out of Iraq now—just as the light’s beginning (but only beginning) to shine at the end of the tunnel.

It’s a clever tack: If critics take up the debate on Bush’s terms and argue that he’s exaggerating the progress (as he is), the White House could say this only proves we must stay longer, to advance the progress further. The president also acknowledged mistakes (though he never mentioned the M word, talking instead of “fits and starts” and “adjustments of approach”). The implication was that we shouldn’t extrapolate from past trends; there’s a new strategy in place, and we should wipe the scorecard clean in appraising its success.

Yet the president’s speech this morning—delivered not before the usual applauding crowd of American cadets, midshipmen, or officers, but to the staid pinstripers of Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations—only reinforces the common suspicion that things aren’t going so well in Iraq, that on a basic level something’s wrong with the entire enterprise.

Bush’s theme this time out was how we’re improving Iraq’s economy (last week, at the U.S. Naval Academy, it was how we’re training Iraq’s armed forces). He recited good-news statistics ($21 million in loans to 30,000 new small businesses, 3,000 renovated schools, some new sewage lines and power substations). None of these figures are to be sniffed at; some are genuinely impressive; but they pale before the larger trends, none of which bode well.

Take the most recent edition of the U.S. State Department’s “Iraq Weekly Status Report,” dated Nov. 30. This long-invaluable, continuously updated document is no longer an entirely apolitical compendium of facts and figures. For example, its contents are now organized along the “eight pillars” of the president’s strategy for victory. Still, facts are stubborn things (as another president once tried to say), and the rah-rah tone can’t disguise them.

Most critically, Iraq’s electrical power grid appears as dim as ever, or dimmer. Average daily supply—about 80,000 megawatts—falls 55,000 megawatts short of daily demand. It’s 30,000 megawatts below the target that planners tried to hit last summer. And it’s 15,000 megawatts below the average pre-war level. (A new power plant turbine in Kirkuk, which is about to fire up, will add just 260 megawatts to this total, according to the report. Two new substations, which Bush heralded in his speech, will service a mere 2,500—out of roughly 1 million—homes in Baghdad.)

Baghdad, a capital city of roughly 6 million people, has only 6.1 hours of electrical power a day; nationwide, the average is 11.9 hours a day. The situation is, if anything, worsening; in the previous week’s report, the respective figures were 8.7 and 12.6 hours.

Crude oil output—which Paul Wolfowitz once told us would pay for the war within months of Saddam’s toppling—is stagnant, at 2 million barrels a day, well below the official goal of 2.5 million.

In today’s speech, President Bush pointed to Najaf and Mosul as model cities—sites of intense, chaotic violence not long ago, now bastions of relative calm with Iraqi security forces in charge. Progress has been remarkable in both places, but it’s not at all clear that they reflect Bush’s picture of an ideal future. Many, if not most, security forces in Najaf are avowed members of Muqtada Sadr’s militia. In recent days, the city saw former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s campaign office attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, the province’s ex-governor kidnapped, and the provincial council threaten to break ties with Americans after reports that a U.S. soldier stabbed a young man during a house raid.

President Bush said the progress in Najaf and Mosul “is being replicated across much of Iraq.” Yet examples are hard to come by. (He didn’t cite any.) He said that Iraqi people are beginning to see the fruits of freedom and democracy and that each new glimmer of this connection deals a blow to the Saddamists and terrorists who seek only destruction. And yet the attacks continue to soar, as do the resulting casualties. As Bush prepared his speech, gunmen raided a prison and killed three policemen while freeing a man who’d been arrested for plotting to kill a judge. Two suicide bombers killed 43 people inside Baghdad’s police academy. Two Americans were killed in a rocket and mortar attack on the U.S. military base in Mosul—yes, even Mosul.

Again, Bush might argue, in the face of all this, that the strategy needs more time; improvements will build on improvements, successes will generate popular support, which will yield more successes. Missing from this assurance, though, is any recognition of the dynamics set in motion by America’s occupation—that the large-scale presence of U.S. troops bolsters security and stability, but it also foments resentment and hatred and swells the ranks of the insurgency, which wreaks further fear and chaos. Simply keeping the troops there longer won’t necessarily improve the situation. The president still hasn’t painted a complete picture; he still hasn’t spelled out a strategy.