Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I'm Going to Miss the Village

Summary: I've enjoyed performing the patrolling mission here in Iraq. My favorite thing to do was visit the villages and hand out toys and school supplies to the children. But now we're switching to the Field Artillery mission. I did my best to communicate with the children in Arabic, and sometimes we even understood each other. I tried to soak it all in the last time I went to the village, knowing I might not make it back, if ever, for a long time. I'd like to bring my family back someday to see what it's like.

We recently received a change of mission. Rather than going out on patrols now, we are doing what we were originally trained to do--the Field Artillery--some of us preparing to use our cannon skills for over 20 years.

But this means that I won't be going into the village anymore.

A couple of days ago I realized that my visit to the village would be my last, and I therefore took the experience in a little bit more keenly. Yes, the kids were sometimes mean to each other as they clamored for the best toys or notebooks, but I've seen similar competition as candy gets tossed from a float in an American parade. All in all, they are good, handsome children, who I hope grow up with a much better chance than their parents and grandparents at living life the way it can and should be lived.

What I liked most about the patrol mission and visits to the villages is that the exposure of the younger generation of Iraqis to American soldiers will create a positive image in their minds of America, especially because they know we like them and try to serve and just be nice to them.

Although a greater number of Iraqi adults seem to be at least cordial with us than when we first arrived, it is far more likely that children will wave and be friendly to us than adults. But when they are in the same car as their parents for example, the children's exuberance at seeing the American troops seems to carry over with their parents, who in these circumstances more often smile and wave as well.

On my last visit, some of the kids in the village spoke some of the English to me that they are just beginning to learn in their school. And because we took a little more time handing out the toys and school supplies, I was able to speak a lot more Arabic to them than I had at any other time, which they thought was great. I shook their hands and gave them high fives and we did the thumbs up sign to each other. It was great to see the smiles on their faces as I left wondering if maybe 10 years from now I could bring my family back to that village in more peaceful and secure circumstances.

I pray that it may be possible then, if not sooner.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Iraq, Oil Scarcity, and Gas Lines

Summary: You wouldn't think that in a country that has a huge oil production potential that there would be gas lines. But there are. This blog post explains how something like that could happen.

I have just begun to read what promises to be one of the best ever explanations of economics, a book entitled Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. In the introductory chapter he talks about the concept of scarcity--that there is never enough of most things to satisfy the desires of those who want them.

It got me thinking about something I never thought I would see in a land of plentiful oil: gas lines. Almost every day in Iraq I see cars lined up, sometimes by the hundreds, waiting to buy gas. Yes, oil is scarce in Iraq, but not in the way that it is scarce in some other places like Japan. There is a ton of oil per capita in this place, so why would there be gas lines almost everywhere I go?

First of all, you need security. In a country that is beset by insurgents, getting the product to the consumer is riskier than it would normally be. Insurgents make threats on producers and consumers, and they occasionally blow up a transmission pipeline. If the insurgents would just go home, this particular problem would be...well...only a little bit better.

Secondly, refining capacity is required for turning oil into gasoline, diesel, etc. (You know...that Saddam is such a great guy. He used to have some asesome palaces.) With all the oil Iraq was selling to the world (before Saddam attacked Iran, the Kurds, Kuwait, and the Shia') it easily had enough financial wherewithal to keep its refining capacity up to date. But most refineries here are at least 20 years out of date, and some have not even been upgraded since they were built in the 1950's. So there's a ton of oil to be had, but no way to get it to the people. As a side note, I know a lot of guys who get paid to pretty much do nothing at a refinery near where I patrol.

Finally, because gasoline and other end-consumer products are scarce, the best way to direct them to where they're needed most is through a natural pricing mechanism. Somehow (I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with either Saddam or Hugo Chavez) gas prices are kept at an artifically low price in Iraq--something like the equivalent of 4 cents per gallon. So, Iraqis have no incentive to manage correctly the amount of gasoline they consume, through driving less, car pooling, or fuel economy, for example. (Any consumer is prone to mismanagement of any scarce good in this kind of situation, especially when it's perceived as free or "not mine"). To make matters worse, surrounding countries, such as Syria and Jordan, have no artificially set price for gasoline. Okay a role play here: you're a fuel delivery guy in Iraq. You can sell your gas to Iraqi gas stations for about 4 cents, or you can go across the border and sell it for something like a dollar. Question: What's the name of the fuel delivery guy? Just kidding. Have you decided yet what you would do?

These three huge problems conspire against the Iraqi people having gas in the right places, and they have caused a resource that is already scarce to become tremendously scarcer. And, just magine what Iraqis could be producing if they didn't have to sit in gas lines.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Expectation Disconnect

Summary: The Iraqi people were generally very happy to see the Americans roll into their country after nearly 25 years of struggles in the Iran/Iraq War, Desert Storm, and wholesale killings by the Saddam Hussein regime. But while the Iraqis were expecting the strong Americans to stop all the looting and restore the electrical power grid, the Americans were thinking we were there to make it safe enough for the Iraqis to take care of themselves. If one has never experienced democracy, he may not know how to handle it. Mistakes were made on both sides, and others will likely be made. But together we can bring liberty and a strong economy to Iraq.

When the Americans rolled into Baghdad in 2003, despite the bombings that had killed and wounded several Iraqis who lived close to such things as anti-aircraft guns and Saddam hideouts, the Iraqis were generally euphoric to see them. For the past 25 years, their brutal dictator had emaciated their collective lives by dragging them from one crisis to another:

--The Iran/Iraq war, from 1980-1988
--The occupation of Kuwait, and the resulting Operation Desert Storm in 1991
--The wholesale slaughter of thousands of Shia’ in the southern part of the country following an uprising after Desert Storm
--The brutal destruction of thousands of Kurds in the north from time to time
--United Nations sanctions as a result of Saddam’s lust for power

Based on Iraqi expectations, American tanks were a welcome sight. But based on those same expectations, they were not a welcome sight for long. Iraqis expected, above all, that the Americans would do two things: (1) protect their streets from looting and chaos, and (2) quickly restore the electrical power grid that had been destroyed by Ba’athist mismanagement during the bombings.

When, on practically the same day Saddam’s statue tumbled to the dust in Baghdad, wide scale looting and destruction began, the Iraqis wondered why the mighty Americans didn’t squash it. After all, Saddam would have put a quick end to it, and the Americans were infinitely more powerful than he. As time went on and the electricity situation didn’t get any better, attitudes of many Iraqis soured even worse, some complaining that this was worse than being under Saddam Hussein.

When President Bush sent L Paul Bremer to begin the reconstruction effort, much emphasis was placed on helping the Iraqis to take care of themselves. The Americans would provide consultation on helping to restore the power grid, and they would provide a backup security force for the police who, it was expected, would control the streets. Not taking into account the docility engrained in the Iraqi people as a result of decades of despotism pressing down on them, America assumed that the Iraqis would immediately know what to do with their new-found freedom. And they were frustrated when Iraqis didn't seem to want to take control of their own destiny.

It is an axiom that people want to be free. It is not similarly axiomatic that they will know what to do with that freedom. That Americans take for granted such freedoms became blinders of sorts in the formation of our expectations of the Iraqi people.

Several mistakes were made. Some continue to be made. But the precarious experiment in freedom here, once feared by some and hoped by others to be fatal, is now improving in leaps and bounds. The disconnect between American and Iraqi expectations is narrowing all the time as we get to know each others’ cultures and ways of thinking. And the further in the past the despotisms of Saddam and his Ba’ath party henchmen become, the easier it will become for Americans to teach the ways of entrepreneurship, oraganization, and responsible decision making and for the Iraqis to implement those teachings.