Iraq: Where Are The Refugees?

GENERIC Iraq, Iraqi, Elections, Election
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This column from National Review Online was written by Michael Rubin.

On June 17, I received a telephone call from an Iraqi friend. Had I heard about the car bomb outside a military recruiting center in Baghdad? I had. It was headline news. He proceeded to tell me that a mutual Iraqi friend was in the hospital. He was heading to a meeting with an American official and was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was hit by shrapnel.

Many Iraqis sacrifice for their country. Over the course of the four years I have been involved in Iraqi affairs, I have lost a number of Iraqi friends and, more recently, American colleagues. Newspapers, pundits, and academics may scream "quagmire," but Iraqis remain better off today than they did under Saddam. More importantly, Iraqis believe their lives will be better in two years than they were two years ago. They have hope.

He-said, she-said arguments about media focus are meaningless. Cameras do not lie, but they do not give the full perspective. The New York Times has an editorial position in its news department which is not going to change. Headlines will continue to favor hyperbole over fact. Journalists will write that Fallujah was a Sunni uprising, ignoring the relative calm in Sunni towns like Ramadi, Baquba, Samarra, Hib Hib, Nahr al-Shaykh, and Mosul.

Pundits and academics -- the shrillest of whom have not been to Iraq -- will cast doubt on achievements. They will repeat the canard that the Defense Department was mistaken in its belief that Americans would be greeted as liberators. They will ignore their own reporting from just over a year ago: On April 10, 2003, the Washington Post headlined, "Hussein's Baghdad Falls; U.S. Forces Move Triumphantly through Capital Streets, Cheered by Crowds Jubilant at End of Repressive Regime." Buried in the Baltimore Sun the same day was a story entitled, "On Arab TV, few tears shed over regime's fall; in a switch, U.S. forces shown controlling capital, being welcomed by mobs." Many small-town newspapers readily reported what their un-jaded reporters saw. The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, for example,
reported, "American soldiers were welcomed as liberators as the citizens in the streets told what U.S. military leaders were hesitant to formally proclaim: the end of Saddam's tyranny." The Greenville [South Carolina] News reported that young people chanted, "'Bush, Bush, thank you...' as American troops rolled through Saddam City in eastern Baghdad." Even the French, never fans of liberation (except their own) conceded the welcome. The day after the fall of Baghdad, French radio announced, "Saddam Hussein has fallen, his dictatorship too. The American soldiers are received in Baghdad as liberators."

There are several objective factors to indicate that Iraqis have more confidence in their future than do American pundits. On October 15, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued a new run of Iraqi currency. The Iraqi dinar floats freely and is traded not only across Iraq, but also in the currency markets of Beirut, Cairo, and Karachi. Upon the release of the new dinar, one dollar bought 2,000. When I witnessed a chaotic currency auction on the streets of Basra three months later, the dollar bought only 1,100 dinar. For the last several months, the rate has hovered between 1,400 to 1,450 dinars to the dollar. Simply put, national currencies do not strengthen when constituents have no faith in their future.

April 2004 was a month of chaos and scandal in Iraq. Pundits and left-wing politicians began openly calling for withdrawal. Iraqis, however, juxtaposed their April experience with what they had faced in previous wars and under Saddam, and concluded that things were not so dire. The Iraqi currency did lose 1.8 percent of its value in April, a relatively minor decline compared to the Canadian dollar, which lost 4.5 percent of its value relative to the U.S. dollar over the same time period. Why? Iraq is not in a free-fall; headlines or news coverage which implies as much is wrong. Why else would the Iraqi currency do so well?

Some journalists are dishonest; most are not. Working on the streets of Baghdad is difficult. Most correspondents hire local fixers to act as translators, assistants, and facilitators. Often, these bilingual Iraqis are asked to "go out and get quotes," while the Western correspondent writes his story in the Palestine or Sheraton hotel, or whatever other lodging he has acquired. Some news agencies have continued their relationships with their assigned fixers from before liberation. Others disproportionately hired fixers from Saddam's now-dissolved Ministry of Information.

Ultimately, however, it is the editors' choice of what stories to dedicate space to which shapes public opinion. Often, these stories involve violence and the result is far less confidence in our mission among Americans than among Iraqis. Objective indicators tell a far different story, though. On August 16, 2002, the Guardian published analysis which showed that one-in-six Iraqis fled their country during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Human-rights groups intervened as Iraqis smuggled themselves onto the shores of Australia and England. The French set up detainment camps for refugees in towns like Calais. Turkey and Greece cooperated to crackdown on people smuggling. In 2000-2001, while a visiting lecturer in Safavid and Qajar dynasty Iranian history at the University of Sulamani in northern Iraq, I lost ten percent of my class not to dull lectures, but rather to people smugglers and illegal immigration in Europe. This raises the question: If Iraq is in chaos, too dangerous for even the United Nations to function, then where are the refugees? Rather than fleeing, Iraqis are returning. They are opening restaurants, boutiques, hotels, and car dealerships across the country. One Iraqi told me he invested more than $200,000 in a new bottling plant. Another spent $550,000 on a restaurant. Generally speaking, people do not invest money when they have no confidence in the future. After 35 years of dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, Iraqis see light at the end of the tunnel.

Antiwar activists, journalists, and progressive pundits paint a portrait of Iraq that does not represent reality. On June 2, Australia's largest-circulation daily, the Herald Sun analyzed press bias in Iraq. It took to task Australian politicians who had cried wolf prior to the war. Many of these politicians took their information from a report issued by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). The IPPNW report predicted that U.S.-led military activity in Iraq "could kill between 48,000 and 260,000 civilians and combatants in just the first three months of conflict.... Post-war health effects could take an additional 200,000 lives." Other groups predicted starvation and malnutrition affecting three million people, as well as a flood of refugees. None of this happened.

John Pilger, the Michael Moore of Great Britain, wrote that United Nations sanctions killed more than 60,000 Iraqi children each year. Civilian deaths continue. According to, 11,300 Iraqi civilians have died since liberation. But, as the Herald Sun reported, "Iraqi doctors now say it was Saddam himself who killed the children with his greed and cruelty -- while killing thousands of adults, too, every year. So do the math. If Pilger was right, our liberation of Iraq has already saved well over 40,000 lives."

Not everything has gone well in Iraq. U.S. forces won a stunning military victory; diplomats botched the occupation. Interagency wrangling delayed establishment and hampered operation of a free Iraqi media outlet. Rather than put an Iraqi face on occupation, Bremer sought the spotlight. Many career diplomats treated President George W. Bush's goals for a democratic Iraq with disdain. Policy flip-flops confused Iraqis looking for consistency. Bremer's personal foibles, especially his tendency to treat mediators as adversaries and personalize politics, antagonized Iraqis. Because of his abuse of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, some Iraqis now compare Bremer to Ayatollah Sadiq Khalkhali, hanging judge of the Iranian Revolution. Bremer's abuse of the judiciary has undermined Iraqis' faith in American promises of democracy as much as a small number of CIA contractors and the 800th Military Police Brigade undermined faith in American human-rights standards. The U.S. military failed to adequately secure the border; Bremer's decision last October to veto any contribution of Turkish troops to guard the non-Kurdish portion of the Syrian-Iraqi border has had profound consequence on the security of both Iraqis and American forces. Rather than encourage political parties which span ethnic and sectarian identification, the State Department and British Foreign Office did the opposite. Bremer's decision to hold party-slate elections rather than single-member constituency elections will push Iraq further toward the failed Lebanese model rather than true democracy. Ironically, Jordan abandoned nationwide party-slate elections because they disproportionately favored militant Islamists.

Winston Churchill once quipped, "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities." American operations in Iraq have not gone smoothly, but there has been progress in Iraq, sometimes despite us, and sometimes because of us. Iraqis may complain about CPA policies, but behind the complaints they remain thankful that liberation created a template upon which they can build. There is a tendency in an election year to bash Bush fairly or unfairly. But, as the media paints a bleak picture with each bomb, fairness requires an answer to the question, "Where are the refugees?"
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
By Michael Rubin
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online