"Follow the money." -- Deep Throat, to Bob Woodward, behind the orange glow of a cigarette in an unlit parking garage, Washington, DC, 1972.
While America has been enthralled with the Democratic primaries, the general election, the NBA playoffs, and Tiger Woods' post-knee surgery exploits, a lot of really neat stuff has been going on in Iraq.
U.S. troop casualties are at record lows, Iraqi army/police casualties are at record lows, and Iraqi civilian casualties are at record lows, too (despite the persistent but increasingly rare spectacular attacks like the one that claimed 51 lives in Baghdad today). Signs of normalcy return to Baghdad and other cities day by day, and public opinion polls show increased confidence in Prime Minister Maliki (thanks in large part to the success of recent operations in Basra, Mosul, and Sadr City) as well as increased optimism for the future. More Gulf Arab states are formalizing diplomatic relationships with Iraq in the form of embassies and consulates that have been closed since 2003 or 2004 due to security concerns.
As General Petraeus is quick to remind us, however, all these security gains are "fragile and reversible." He's right.
What's just as important -- maybe even more so -- for Iraq's long-term success as a prosperous democracy in the heart of the Middle East -- is the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that will bring an improved job market and better consumer options for Iraqis. (Remember, debriefs of detained insurgents have consistently shown that financial considerations have driven more insurgent behavior than have any other single motive).
The FDI trickle is starting to become a flow, and it matters. (http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20080617/1a_lede17_dom.art.htm) With every dollar of foreign investment that comes in, more and more international actors have a key stake in the future success and stability of Iraq. More Iraqis have sources of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. That strengthens civil society.
As I might say, it strengthens Iraq's social capital.
There are many factors in place that are going to lead Iraq to be a league leader in GDP growth over the next several years -- significant oil wealth (daily exports have passed pre-2003 levels, with crude prices in the stratosphere), religious tourism, a largely untapped labor pool, and a huge market hungry for the consumer goods that they've largely been denied either through state repression (1968-1991), international sanctions (1991-2003), and the privations of war (2003-present).
As my CO told us two years ago, "Stop looking for the big picture in Iraq. There is no big picture. There are just lots and lots of little ones."
Every step in the positive feedback loop of improved security and a more robust economy is a little picture that will help bring healing to a people that have suffered more over the past two generations -- through no fault of their own, mind you -- than most us will ever care to know, or even imagine.