Date Published:Dec 27, 2005
Electing a Parliament under the new permanent Constitution was a significant achievement for the Iraqi people, who once again faced down terrorist violence and political intimidation to demonstrate their desire for a democratic future. For better or worse, in the election's aftermath, the United States will almost certainly begin to withdraw its military from Iraq in 2006. But that does not mean that the time has come to disengage. On the contrary, a broader, more diverse engagement with Iraqi society is needed to help Iraqis develop the institutions, practices and values essential to real and enduring democracy.
As President Bush emphasized in his second inaugural address, change of this sort—from tyranny to democracy—is a generational challenge. Our strategy in Iraq must be generational as well. We should reorient our efforts and reallocate some of our resources as our military presence scales down. The needs of Iraqi civic institutions, from the news media and universities to professional associations and nongovernmental organizations, are both vast and urgent. While the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Agency for International Development and others have done important work to bolster such groups, overall, American efforts have so far been inadequate.
Higher education is a case in point. In a country whose median age is about 19.5 years, universities play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and producing future leaders. Today's Iraqi political parties, like the Baath party before them, understand this—so much so that Iraq's universities have become battlegrounds, with dozens of students and educators killed. Iraq's elite tends to emerge from the country's most competitive academic programs, including those for medicine, engineering and science. That the first two prime ministers of postwar Iraq, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jafaari, were trained as doctors is no accident.
But after decades of neglect, brain drain and sanctions, Iraq's universities and colleges are unable to train sufficient numbers of professors or schoolteachers to educate the next generation. Today, Iraq's 20 public universities and more than 40 technical colleges and institutes struggle to educate more than 250,000 students annually. Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to build the system back up to where it was before Saddam Hussein took power; billions will be needed to meet today's regional standard, set by countries like Qatar.
How can we help build a better Iraq unless we focus on its vast population of young people, whose views of their country and its politics have yet to harden into dogma? But despite higher education's strategic importance, American support for it has been paltry. From 2003 to 2005, a United States Agency for International Development program allocated $20 million to building partnerships between American and Iraqi universities. That program ended without a successor; no agency funds are allocated for Iraqi higher education for 2006. The American Embassy in Baghdad backed the founding of an American University in Iraq in Sulaimaniya, but future support is uncertain.
The State Department offers Fulbright scholarships to about 30 Iraqis annually to study at universities in the United States. But these concentrate on the humanities and social sciences, rather than the scientific and technical disciplines that attract Iraq's best and brightest. With few exceptions, American educational institutions have not tried to fill this gap.
The costs being equal, which is the better investment in Iraq's future: some 250 annual scholarships for future Iraqi leaders to study in the United States, or another fighter jet? We can greatly expand our efforts to reach out to Iraqi elites across the board, from ministry technocrats to journalists to doctors. Conferences and seminars, often in the region, have begun to reconnect Iraqis to the outside world. We can find other ways to bypass the current security situation by dramatically increasing our investment in communications technology like the Internet (including access to seemingly mundane but critical resources, like online journal databases) and video conferencing.
We should expand "train and equip" programs for Iraqi editors, journalists, and publishers. We should also increase financing for the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace and other organizations that are helping Iraqis build and sustain civic institutions. Such investments cannot be postponed and must not be considered merely "supplemental." We need to lock them into our budgets today.
But the United States government should not carry the load alone. Americans of all types—including educators, management consultants and municipal officials—can contribute and need to step forward. More organizations should follow the lead of Columbia University's Center for International Conflict Resolution, which works with civic leaders in regions of Iraq that are relatively peaceful. American trade unions, professional associations, educational institutions, journalists, students, human rights activists, scientists and business executives should establish ties with their Iraqi counterparts.
So far, many Americans who opposed the war have not extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people in its aftermath. Others sit on the fence. With elections under a new Constitution, the time has come to focus on Iraq's future and put aside the politics of the past.
A strategy that emphasizes building Iraqi civil society may clear the way for bipartisan cooperation, as well as for more international participation. To be sure, if the United States does not do the heavy lifting, the lifting will not get done. Many partners have already paid heavily for their engagement in Iraq. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is virtually tapped out in Afghanistan. Germany, France and others face domestic challenges. Nonetheless, persuading the Germans, for example, to train 100 Iraqis as vocational educators would be infinitely easier than trying to convince them to put one military trainer on the ground.
To many ears, it sounds unrealistic, even idealistic, to say that we should begin concentrating our efforts on improving Iraq's civic life at its grassroots. But such a strategy is a realistic response to the challenges we and our Iraqi allies face, as well as a hedge against possible reversals.
Those in office under the new Constitution will almost certainly seek to advance their own interests—personal, party, sectarian, ethnic, tribal—just as their predecessors in the transitional government did. Some tactics will be savage. Powerful militias will continue to stoke fear. Islamists will try to silence secular voices. Sunni extremists will mount attacks, and the attacks will provoke retaliation. Having seen the evidence of death squads and new torture chambers, we should be under no illusions about the dark possibilities of the coming era. Some leaders will try to make their power permanent. Should we expect otherwise, where the political stakes are still often life and death?
While we work with the party leaders of today, a new generation will determine what kind of country Iraq becomes. The forces we hope prevail should be the Shakespeare scholar turned newspaper editor, the architect leading an organization devoted to spreading Internet connections among students, and the independent candidate for Parliament advised by the National Democratic Institute. Promoting their success is not an "extra," but is essential to long-term strategic success.
We must not underestimate the tenacity of the Iraqi people or lose sight of the lessons of history. Photocopiers, after all, became samizdat weapons against Soviet tyranny. American unions assisted their brethren behind the Iron Curtain in becoming independent forces for change. A once jailed playwright eventually led the Czech Republic. Serbian youth groups galvanized the peaceful uprising that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. Videos of that success inspired activists in Ukraine and elsewhere. And leaders of Georgia's Rose Revolution were once Muskie fellows in the United States.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has correctly emphasized that the political transition process in Iraq will not be a "straight line." It will be long, difficult, and bloody. It will be uncertain. There will be more setbacks, even if the insurgency is checked. But our current predicament in Iraq centers on the question not of when to withdraw, but of how to broaden and deepen our engagement.