May 28, 2004

New Deal, Iraq-style

With all due respect to Wesley Clark and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the whole idea of bringing international support into Iraq still sounds like a hollow ruse. Are the militias planning to relinquish their weapons if the UN takes control of the occupation? Will ethnic tensions suddenly disappear? Doubtful. Without directly addressing some of the very real and very concrete problems in Iraq, "international support" is ephemeral at best.

Hassan Fattah gets it, and offers a clear, sensible solution: social spending. (Well, it was bound to come up eventually.)
Instead, the CPA needs to launch massive, New Deal-style programs that would employ hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, put money in average people's hands, and jump-start the economy. Besides providing work, these programs, as they did during the Great Depression, would help mold a new Iraqi identity. Iraq is ripe for just such a project. Last year, for example, the CPA instituted a Baghdad city cleanup that put thousands of Iraqis to work sweeping and unclogging drains. Baghdad became cleaner, and the notable quiet during and after the program underscored its success as Iraqis welcomed the massive public works effort.

In addition to repairing roads and sewers, the United States should put thousands of Iraqis to work conducting a census. As various political parties discuss their constituencies and economists make plans for the country, no one has any evidence of whom politicians represent or of where Iraqis live. Iraq has long had a tradition of community representatives in each neighborhood who are responsible for local information. Each community representative typically has the name of each family in the neighborhood; today, they could serve their communities by helping develop this census. As with the Baghdad cleanup, a census would help the economy and also build political unity--all of which would keep people from reaching for their guns.
How does that saying go-- infrastructure speaks louder than words? Regardless of all the heartening news coming out of Iraq, reconstruction is still proceeding at a grudging pace, and infrastructure is still shabby. Any government, however legitimate, is going to find the going tough amidst these conditions.

Now, massive public works projects don't amount to much as long as Iraq lacks basic security. But it's entirely possible that we could somewhat bypass the entire security issue if we committed ourselves to large-scale infrastructure financing. Basically, we cordon off towns like Fallujah and Najaf, surrending those areas to Sadr and other militia leaders. It's unpalatable, yes, but absent the continuation of full-scale conflict and/or the demolition of entire towns, there doesn't seem to be much we can do to disarm the insurgents. At any rate, the point of an Iraqi New Deal would be to staunch the bleeding in areas still under our control, by putting restless and discontent Iraqis to work. The hope is that we could prevent unemployed Iraqis from joining up with the insurgents, and give them a stake in the continued stability of Iraq.

On the international front, a public works program could possibly lure Europe into the fray, especially if we started handing out lucrative reconstruction contracts (or hell, let the "fully sovereign" Iraqis manage those contracts, as opposed to the Pentagon).
-- Brad Plumer 8:21 PM || ||