'This may not be Vietnam, but boy, it sure smells like it," said Sen. Tom Harkin recently. The Iowa Democrat is but one of a host of critics in Washington politics and the media who claim that US troops and administrators are "bogged down" in Iraq.
Having covered the war as an embedded reporter, having conducted the first national poll of the Iraqi people (in concert with Zogby International), and having remained in close touch with the military men and women who are temporarily the princes running the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, I believe this gloomy view is incomplete and inaccurate.
Let's start by remembering the traumas that never befell us in Iraq.
Not only was the war itself vastly less bloody and difficult than some predicted, but its aftermath has also been quieter. We were told by prewar prognosticators to expect a refugee flood, a food crisis, destruction of the oil fields, and public-health disasters. We were warned that Iraq's multifarious ethnic and religious groups would be at one another's throats. Environmental catastrophes, chemical poisonings, and dam breaks were predicted. It was said Turkey might occupy the north, that Israel could strike from the south, that the Arab "street" was likely to resist.
None of these things happened. Nor have other predicted troubles materialized. When 300,000 mourners gathered for the funeral of assassinated Shiite spiritual leader Bakr al Hakim, they didn't rampage, or call for vengeance against Sunnis, or lash out against the US authorities. They and their leaders showed the political maturity to let the official investigation into the leader's murder proceed.
Whatever the setbacks, we must remember that much of this war has been a case of the dog that didn't bark.
That is not to whitewash the fact that painful low-intensity conflict is still smoldering, producing casualties equivalent to the hot-war phase.
The man I photographed in combat for the cover of my new book about the Iraq war, an 82nd Airborne Ranger named Sean Shields, has been bombed in his Humvee twice in a month. Localized resistance in the Sunni triangle is real. But Sean isn't discouraged: He believes he's doing historic work to stabilize one of the most dangerous spots on our planet. He and other soldiers I hear from believe they're making great progress in setting Iraq on the path of a more normal, decent nation.
Here are some signs they're right:
• Stores are bustling, traffic is busy, and most services have now exceeded their prewar levels. A new currency went into circulation last week.
• Large cities, home to millions - like Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk - and vast swaths of countryside in the north and south, are stable, basically peaceful, beginning to bubble economically, and grateful to coalition forces who've set them on a new path.
• More than 170 newspapers are being published in Iraq, and broadcast media proliferate.
• The Iraqi Governing Council has been well received by the country's many factions and ethno-religious groups. Sixty-one percent of Iraqis polled by Gallup in September view the council favorably. And by 50 to 14 percent they say it is doing a better, rather than worse, job than it was two months ago.
• For the first time, localities have their own town councils. A working court system has been set up. And a constitution is being hashed out.
• In addition to the 140,000 US troops providing security, there are about 25,000 soldiers from other countries, and 60,000 Iraqi police and guards on the job - with many thousands more in the training pipeline.
• Nearly all schools and universities are open; hundreds have been rehabbed into their best shape in years by soldiers.
• Iraq's interim economic leaders recently committed the country to a wide-open, investment-friendly market economy. The prosperity and global connectivity this should bring will be the ultimate guarantee of Iraq's modernity and moderation.
• Oil production has passed 1 million barrelsper day, and is heading toward 2 million.
• Iraqi public opinion is more moderate than suggested by the anecdotal temperature-takings in press reports. Four entirely different polls have been conducted in Iraq, and their remarkably congruent results show that the majority of Iraqis are optimistic about their future, and believe ousting Saddam Hussein was worth any hardships that have resulted.
The four-city survey in August by The American Enterprise, a magazine I edit, suggests that the three nightmare scenarios for Iraq - a Baathist revival, an Iran-style theocracy, and a swing toward Al Qaeda - are very unlikely, given current Iraqi views. And contrary to media reports of boiling public resentment, all of these polls show that two-thirds of Iraqis want US troops to stay for at least another year.
• Meanwhile, the pouncing raids that US forces initiated two months ago have hurt the guerrillas. More than 1,000 fighters have been arrested and many others killed. The bounty paid by ex-Baathists toinduce attacks on American soldiers has had to be increased from $1,000 to $5,000 to find takers.
• Most critically, the US is now on offense, rather than defense, in the war on terror. With a shock being applied to the seedbeds of Middle Eastern violence, the US homeland has been blessedly quiet for two years.
My friend Christopher Hitchens - who like me, numerous congressmen, and other recent visitors to Iraq witnessed what he calls "ecstatic displays" toward Americans by grateful Iraqis - characterizes what is taking place in Iraq today as "a social and political revolution."
That's no overstatement. Maj. Pete Wilhelm, with the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad, recently described how US forces are nurturing the first shoots of democracy in the Fertile Crescent: "We set up a Neighborhood Advisory Council representative of each neighborhood, and they voted on a leader who attends the city advisory council. Early on, the meetings would last four hours, and it would seem as though no progress was being made. The whole concept of a 'vote' came hard and slow. We have gradually transitioned the burden of the agenda into the hands of the representatives, renovated the meeting hall with AC, and pushed the autopilot button. The meetings are down to an hour and a half, and we just keep the ball in play and act as referees. We are making great strides at grass-roots democracy."
After a recent trip to the country, Mr. Hitchens agrees, saying, "I saw persuasive evidence of the unleashing of real politics in Iraq, and of the highly positive effect of same."
All of this has been accomplished in less than six months from the fall of Baghdad. Keep in mind that Germany - a much more advanced nation that already had a democratic tradition - didn't hold elections until four years after World War II ended. Gen. Douglas MacArthur progressed less rapidly in Japan.
Certainly, there remains an enormous amount to fix in Iraq. But there is something unseemly about the impatience of today's pundits, their insistence on instant recovery, and what my colleague Michael Barone calls the media's "zero defect standard."
US soldiers and administrators are turning a tide of history and culture in the Middle East. If Americans show some patience, they'll gaze upon many heartening transformations in Iraq a few months and years from now.
• Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise magazine, is the author of the new book, 'Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq.' He was in Iraq in April.