"Iraqi mothers want the same thing for their children American mothers want for theirs," President Bush has said. "A place for their child to grow up and get a good education and be able to realize dreams."
The president is correct. The two institutions Iraqis prize most are family and education. But the US military occupation and the insurgency have produced a total disruption of both. Can Iraqis return to social normalcy so long as US troops – and their enemies – are engaged there?
One has to look no further than the Palestinian territories to discover the long-term effects of children not going to school. Israel's occupation and perennial lockdown of Palestinians created a new uneducated generation seeking salvation through the radical Islam of Hamas.
In Iraq, disruption of education and family life seems to be having a similar effect. A UN report suggests that "non-state armed groups" are ratcheting up their recruitment of Iraqi children. Witness the recently released Al Qaeda-in-Iraq videos showing preteen boys in paramilitary training. Iraqi Interior Minister Fawzi al-Hariri has acknowledged this problem. He hopes a $5 billion job creation program will offer an alternative to militia or gang activity.
The lesson should be obvious: Foreign military occupations of Muslim lands from the Crusades to the present are disruptive of indigenous cultures, destructive, and sooner or later, hated.
In the months ahead, whichever faction – including the Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr – nurtures the Iraqi passion for education, family, and community is likely to win Iraqi public support.
An unfortunate truth is that Washington's plan for nation building has been hamstrung because the insurgents have been targeting contractors and construction workers. This lethal violence maneuvered the US into a "security first, reconstruction later" mode, reminding us that on every battlefield, the enemy always has a vote.
True, the United States has poured billions into rebuilding Iraq. But the standing joke among Iraqis is that a US company will be awarded a $10 billion contract. The work is then subcontracted to a construction company in Kuwait, which in turn subcontracts to an Iraqi firm, which in turn hires four kids to paint a school. Iraqis then laugh and say, "You can be sure none of those kids ever sees the $10 billion." This cynicism, along with the legacy of massive corruption under former dictator Saddam Hussein, has hobbled US reconstruction efforts.
In addition to focusing on massive nation-building in an ethnically diverse country, the US might even now try to concentrate on the little things that weigh heavily on Iraqis' hearts. A modest start: Recreate secular educational institutions. This requires smarter reconstruction efforts toward rebuilding schools and universities, and providing decent textbooks.
Today, only half of Iraqi children attend primary school, compared with 80 percent in 2005, according to a UN report.
Lest we forget, Iraqis today compare the poor state of schooling under the Americans to the free and prestigious system under Hussein. By the late 1980s, Iraq had mostly wiped out illiteracy. But today, nearly one-third of Iraqi adults can't read.
Now, because of instability and unresolved security issues, students can attend school only for a couple of hours a week, on the "good" days.
Restoring social normalcy is imperative. Iraqis feel they no longer have anything to be proud of. Take teahouses. These dark, smoky cabarets are as meaningful to Iraqis as pubs are to the British. But when people are afraid to leave their homes to puff their sheesha in a café, there is no sense of social normalcy. The daily chai, a staple of every Iraqi's day, not only is unavailable in the teahouses, but because of electricity outages, can't be enjoyed at home, either.
The cinema, arts, and music were a cornerstone of Iraqi culture, and as with young Westerners, popular culture served as a weekend refuge. These outlets are no longer an option, because cinemas and radio stations have been shut down with the US invasion. Meanwhile, new religious laws mandated by conservative Islamic clerics prohibit such expression.
The last five years have drastically altered the public mood in Iraq.
In Hussein's era, when a rumor surfaced that he was ill, people prayed he would die. Now, more than a few remember him fondly. On Iraqi streets you hear the refrain, "At least he was one of us." To many Iraqis, the climate of terror under Hussein has merely given way to a new world of chaos and fear under the US occupation.
The tragedy of Iraq was not created by the Americans. It is a product of the violence and despotism of Hussein. But more than five years after the invasion, it's hard not to conclude that the US has thrown more than a trillion dollars at a problem it helped create without a clue how to fix it. That does not mean we should assume Iraq is Humpty Dumpty – too broken to fix. It's clear that the brunt of the "fixing" is going to have to be done by Iraqis. They certainly have the oil money to do it. The question to consider now is this: Will the Iraqis ever assume responsibility for themselves as long as the American troops remain there?
Since the start of the war, there have been some reminders of what Iraq might once again become. The most notable: the surprising and monumental victory by the Iraqi soccer team over Saudi Arabia in the July 2007 Asia Cup. All Iraqis rejoiced with every win. It was a small but significant reminder that Iraqis have something to be proud of, and that even with a devastating war, victory can sometimes be theirs.