Magazine article The New Yorker

BUILDING NATIONS COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

BUILDING NATIONS COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

The other day, the Times quoted one of that ever-helpful breed, a "senior administration official," as expressing surprise at the horrendous condition of Iraq's "infrastructure," even before the destruction brought about by the war and its aftermath. "From the outside it looked like Baghdad was a city that works," the senior official said. "It isn't."

The quintessential city that works (or, at least, has a cleverly cultivated reputation for being the city that works) is, of course, Chicago. The ward heelers and aldermen of that city understand (or, at least, are celebrated in song and story for understanding) that political power flows not from the barrel of a gun, and not even, necessarily, from the ballot box (whose contents can change in the counting), but from the ability to fix potholes. Garbage that gets collected, buses and trains that take people places, cops that whack bad guys upside the head, taps that yield water when you turn them, lights that go on when you flip the switch, all lubricated by taxes and a bit of honest graft--these are what keep streets calm, voters pacified, and righteous "reformers" out of City Hall.

By Chicago standards, Baghdad, along with almost all the rest of Iraq, is a catastrophe. For that matter, conditions are disastrous even by the looser standards of places like Beirut, Bogota, and Bombay. Reports from the scene are in general agreement on the essentials. Iraq is well rid of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. But the blithe assumptions of the Iraq war's Pentagon architects--that a grateful Iraqi nation, with a little help from American know-how and Iraqi oil cash, would quickly pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again--are as shattered as the buildings that used to house Saddam's favorite restaurants. In Baghdad, and in many other Iraqi cities and towns, civic society has degenerated into a Hobbesian state of nature. Despite the heroic efforts of a scattered minority of midlevel Iraqi civil servants, the services that make urban life viable are functioning, at best, erratically. More often, they do not function at all. "In the most palpable of ways, the American promise of a new Iraq is floundering on the inability of the American occupiers to provide basic services," the Times's Neela Banerjee reported a few days ago. (Perhaps with an eye to educating her White House readers, she added that Baghdad is "about the size of metropolitan Houston.") Telephones are dead. Electricity and running water work, if at all, for only a few hours a day. Because the water pumps are hobbled by power outages, raw sewage is pouring into the Tigris River and is leaking into the fresh-water system, spreading disease and making the city stink. Hospitals that are secure enough to remain open overflow with patients, but they are short of food, medical supplies, and personnel. (Only a fifth of prewar health staffs are showing up for work.) Worst of all is the pervasive, well-founded fear of crime. Armed thugs rule the streets, especially in the pitch-black nights. "Amid such privations," Banerjee writes, "one of the few things that thrives now in Baghdad, at least, is a deepening distrust and anger toward the United States."

It's tempting to suggest that the Bush Administration is failing to provide Iraq with functioning, efficient, reliable public services because it doesn't believe in functioning, efficient, reliable public services--doesn't believe that they should exist, and doesn't really believe that they can exist. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.