That other war



Now that The Hurt Locker has been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture (my choice as well), perhaps we'll start to see news stories studded with cinematic metaphors. So let's get it over with:

The bomb clock is ticking on President Obama's health care plan...The Democrats could cut the wrong wires and blow themselves up...Like bomb specialists hooked on danger, the two congressional parties may be incapable of defusing the tension...

On the other hand, the year's most spellbinding movie has not exactly embedded itself in the popular culture; to date, its domestic box office take is roughly $13 million, a vivid testament to the public's ongoing aversion to watching Iraq on the big screen. The reason for this de facto boycott is no mystery. The war is a downer and most Americans tuned it out years ago, back when George W. Bush was trying in vain to defend his ill-considered invasion and his incompetent occupation.

But, at the risk of readers tuning out at the end of this sentence, it's worth noting the latest political developments in Iraq. The Hurt Locker garnered its six Oscars on the same weekend that Iraq staged a national election, its first since 2005. The bad news is that at least 38 people died and 80 were wounded in suicide bombings that were intended to intimidate the voters. The good news - maybe, conceivably - is that the usual quarreling sectarian factions might cobble together some kind of peaceful governing coalition in the weeks ahead, thereby allowing America to proceed with its long-planned combat troop withdrawals late in the summer.

The Obama administration would dearly love for this to happen, given its focus these days on Pakistan and Afghanistan, not to mention the various crises closer to home. And most Americans would love for this to happen, given their presumably instinctive desire to purge Iraq from their minds and return to the bygone days when they couldn't find it on a map.

But Iraq won't be going away any time soon. Bush's grand democratic experiment is still an exceedingly fragile construct. Three hundred civilians reportedly die each month in political violence; as one news report puts it, "Assassination is still the most likely cause of death in Iraqi politics." A European watchdog group, Transparency International, ranks Iraq as the fourth most corrupt country in the world. Warring political parties control the various government ministries - at least those ministries that are still standing, because car bombs have destroyed five of them during the past six months. Even the most basic services - a car license plate, for instance - are obtainable only if one is prepared to pay a bribe.

Only 25 percent of Iraqis can get enough electricity for their basic needs. Only 25 percent have access to basic health care. Twenty two percent are malnourished. Forty seven percent are unemployed or underemployed. When measuring average income per head of household, Iraq ranks 162nd in the world. Its business climate ranks 153rd; indeed, despite the Bush administration's dream of creating a private enterprise paradise, 60 percent of the Iraqi jobs are in the public sector.

The vote tallies from the weekend election have yet to be announced, but it's clear that none of the 80 political parties have won anything close to a majority. Apparently the current prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, control the most popular factions. They're likely to spend many weeks, and possibly months, trying to form a governing coalition - presumably, one that would unite or at least pacify the majority Shiites, the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds who have long wanted autonomy in northern Iraq. The longer the negotiations take, the greater the risk of a power vacuum, and the greater the risk of renewed violence.

A new report in The Economist magazine concludes: "The city (of Baghdad) is more militarized than it was under Saddam Hussein...Though Iraqis are fed up with violence, the militia-leaders-cum-party-barons pay no more than lip service to the idea of reconciliation...There is a real risk that Iraq's democratic institutions will not survive. They are too weak and too corrupted to resolve the country's many problems peacefully and credibly. Ambitious politicians are able to go outside the institutional framework to further their partisan aims...Such instability opens the door once again to the militias. They appear to offer a shortcut to success, especially in the aftermath of the election. With their political masters locked in fractious coalition negotiations that may last for several months, (the militias) could be called on to carry out attacks aimed at influencing the division of power...

"America's influence is ebbing noticeably as its troops withdraw. Despite spending $800 billion over the past seven years, its plan for the country has still not worked."

Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker, gave a shout out to the troops on Oscar night, in the hope that they all return safely from Iraq. They won't. Even if the Obama team hews to its Sept. 1 troop pullout timetable, roughly 50,000 will remain - and, as Joe Biden put it the other day, most of those who stay behind will still be guys who can shoot straight and go get bad guys."
We might be able to tune out the Oscar-winning movie, and even wipe the war from our minds, but we will continue to pay in blood and treasure. The final bill for our '03 folly is still years away.