Broke, and still broken

August 03, 2006

Pipelines unbuilt. Hospitals half-built. Electric power stations unrepaired. This is how the waning days of America's effort to reconstruct Iraq are turning out. Next month, the last of the $20 billion that the United States is spending on projects there will be committed, and the result is coming up woefully short of the promises and plans made after the invasion of 2003. From now on, it's the Iraqis' problem.

What are the dimensions of the failure? Of the electricity projects that were planned and financed, 30 percent were never even started, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Only 38 percent of the oil and gas projects have been completed. The picture with drinking water is better, but 45 percent of that work is nevertheless unfinished.

What went wrong? Money was stolen, was misspent or went missing. The inspector general's office says it has 82 open investigations into "fraud, corruption, bribery, kickbacks and gratuities." Twenty-five other cases have been referred to federal prosecutors. Most of the worst abuses seem to have taken place early on, and procedures were tightened up as the years - and the scandals - unfolded. Some important work was completed, but it wasn't enough.

Sabotage and the high cost of security were major problems that also set back the reconstruction effort. This was because of an insurgency that U.S. officials should have anticipated and, in truth, did a great deal to provoke. The inspector general has all sorts of useful recommendations on how better to prepare for a major reconstruction effort - and they should be given serious study by Congress and the administration - but the best preparation would involve thinking twice before turning a country inside out. The consequences are not always pretty.

If Iraqis had been grateful and cooperative after the U.S. intervention, and if they had drawn strength from their recent secular history and built a modern, democratic, rule-of-law state, then the American reconstruction would have been a fine success (even if much of it was carried out through no-bid contracts) and the rest of the region would be envious of the Iraqi experience.

But, of course, that didn't happen. The failure of American rebuilding wasn't an isolated failure but part of the much larger overall failure of the entire Iraq enterprise. It happens to be a very visible shortcoming, to Iraqis, and it may be America's most evident legacy in the years to come.

Iraq today is gripped by sectarian warfare and in hock to rampant corruption. (Iraqi investigators are looking into 1,400 cases, involving $5 billion in fraud and bribery.) It's hardly capable of taking on the reconstruction. What isn't done now won't be done.

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