Joel Wing is the founder of the Musings on Iraq blog I have mentioned previously at Harry's Place. Below is a general interview and discussion with him on Iraq:
Aymenn: What first got you interested in following developments in Iraq from 2002 onwards?
Joel: On 9/11, I heard former CIA Director James Woolsey interviewed on TV, and he said that Iraq was probably behind the attack, and even if it wasn't the U.S. should strike it anyway. I was dumbfounded by this remark. Why attack a country if it wasn't involved in 9/11? As talk about Iraq increased in the coming months I grew more concerned that the United States was going to start an unnecessary war. I never believed that Saddam was backing Al Qaeda. I did think that it had some WMD, but even if it did, it was not a threat to the U.S. because the no fly zones covered more than half of the country, making it almost impossible to use. In 2002, I started making comments about the war on message boards, and that eventually got me into researching about Iraq, and writing pieces about it that turned into my blog in 2008.
Aymenn: Could the invasion of Iraq be characterized foremost as completing the 'unfinished business' of the First Gulf War from the perspective of neoconservatives? Do you think that the neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz sincerely believed that, by launching a military invasion, they would establish a liberal democracy in Iraq and move the Middle East away from autocracy?
Joel: I think the legacy of the Gulf War had a huge impact on the Bush administration's decision to invade, and that it wasn't just limited to the neoconservatives. The Bush administration was made up of a diverse set of characters each with their own motivation.  The neoconservatives were just one portion of that mix. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice for example were not neoconservatives. Only some of their subordinates were like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, all of whom were at Defense. I think the Gulf War played a large role in the thinking of Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives. Basically, the U.S. had failed to remove him in 1991 so now 9/11 offered them the opportunity to finish the job. Others like Powell were opposed to military action at the beginning of the administration, but then backed the idea to be loyal to the president.
Those differences also played out as to who thought the U.S. invasion would create a democracy in the Middle East. I think Bush and Wolfowitz were advocates of this idea. John Bolton, who was at the State Dept., didn't care about that at all, and I'm not sure Feith did either, and those were two in the neoconservative camp. One strain of neoconservativism did believe in the active promotion of democracy in the world using military force. After the U.S. invasion, not really before, Bush took up this theme of spreading democracy in the region.
Aymenn: On balance, do you think that the general quality of life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein? I myself find that there is a greater degree of freedom- certainly in the realm of freedom of press (though we have seen this curtailed more recently, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan)- yet I come away from the U.S. Special Inspector General on Iraq Reconstruction's reports with the sense that most reconstruction in the country has been a massive failure. Your thoughts?
Joel: Statistics on Iraq are hard to come by and some of it is unreliable.  Generally speaking, life in Iraq went through a huge decline beginning with the Iran-Iraq War and has never gone back. When sanctions were first imposed in 1991 and the post-invasion/civil war period from 2003-2007 were probably the two nadirs, and now things have finally begun to recover, very slowly however. There are more kids going to school now, infant mortality is down, small businesses are beginning to open, etc. Since violence is more targeted and political in nature now people can go out more. Politically there is a quasi-democracy.  There are lots of political parties to choose from, and lots of media outlets with mixed competency and independence. I think wages, at least for those with government jobs, have even gone up. That being said, most humanitarian measures in the country have not returned to what they were in the 1970s, for example. There is also no rule of law, and corruption is as bad as ever.
As for the U.S. reconstruction effort, I would say most of it was a failure. The U.S. came in trying to build things they wanted without considering Iraq's needs or capabilities. Later on things got a little better, but there was still a general lack of oversight, planning, and coordination, plus the security situation derailed a whole slew of things and led to sky rocketing costs. The U.S. should have focused
upon small, local projects that would use Iraqi contractors and create jobs first and foremost. Instead, it went for huge, capital intensive ones that mostly relied upon foreign companies,  some of which the Iraqis had no ability to maintain and run after they were finished.
Now Iraq is beginning to see a steady growth in foreign investment. The problem with that is too many deals get announced, but then fall through, usually because of Iraqi red tape.  I'm not sure the average person is seeing the effects of much of this foreign money yet.
Aymenn: Yes, bureaucracy is a huge problem in Iraq, and I have noticed the contradictory laws vis-à-vis foreign investment. The economy is still largely state-run and centralized. Do you think the Iraqi government will be able to overcome this obstacle anytime soon?
Joel: No. The government is only giving lip service to promoting the private sector right now. There are programs and benchmarks they have to meet set up by the United States, IMF, etc. to push businesses, but when it comes down to it Iraq will remain a state-run economy dependent upon oil. In fact, the government's drive to boost oil and gas will probably make it more reliant on those industries with the revenues distributed by the state than before.
Aymenn: My thoughts exactly. What particularly bothers me is the way in which Iraq is becoming more and more like the Gulf States such as the United Arab Emirates. That is, a greater dependency on oil for revenue while importing cheap, foreign labour from the Indian subcontinent.  Of course, in Iraq you have a much larger population and far higher degree of corruption and lack of transparency, so the native population will hardly reap the fruits of increased income from oil and natural gas.
Coming to the impending U.S. withdrawal, do you think the Status of Forces Agreement's deadline will be extended beyond 31 December 2011, and if so, do you believe that an extension of the U.S. troop presence would be beneficial for Iraq? As an Iraqi, I don't mind either way.
Joel: The rumour mill is in overdrive about whether US troops will stay or not. I would bet that around 10,000 would stay. More and more individual politicians from different parties are coming out against an extension, so how the two governments will pull this off is going to be complicated. The latest story is that they will sign a memorandum of understanding for advisors as an extension of the U.S. embassy, which will skip having to go through the Iraqi parliament. The way it's going, any extension will not happen until the last minute and might even be after all the U.S. forces are out.
Aymenn: But do you think an extension of the U.S. presence would be helpful to the country in any way? I reject the argument for keeping American forces on the grounds of concern about Iranian influence and interference,  yet I fear that the Iraqi army and security forces are still not well trained enough to take on counter-terrorism operations entirely on their own. Recall, for example, that the hostage crisis and takeover of the government buildings in Tikrit back in the spring required a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation to conduct a successful CT mission. 
Joel: If they stay, U.S. forces will help with Iraq's national and internal defense. If they go however, I don't think much will change. U.S. influence in Iraq is in decline.
Aymenn: Yes, I would agree about the decline in U.S. influence. On a final note, after all U.S. troops are gone, do you think Iraq will largely slip out of sight in Western media?
Joel: You mean more than it already has? For its time Iraq was the biggest foreign policy story in the US media. When the government stopped talking about it, it fell off the radar screen, which started in 2008. There will still be stories but it will be just on what a lot of it is on now. This bomb went off today. This company signed a deal in the oil industry, etc.
Thoughts on this interview
- The diversity of motivations across the administration also shows why WMD was eventually decided on as the primary rationale for invading: it was the one thing on which all the factions could agree. It further explains why planning for the aftermath of the invasion was so poor. Incidentally, there was disagreement within the Bush administration concerning what should be done with Iraq's oil reserves after Saddam's regime was removed. Some officials did entertain the idea of bringing them under American control, but too much opposition within the administration meant that the suggestion never became a matter of CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) or U.S. policy. Indeed, when it comes to Iraq's oil reserves today, it is clear that the balance of profits made on fossil fuel revenues is tipped overwhelmingly in favour of the Iraqi government, which has successfully imposed high taxes and low fees-per-barrel on the foreign companies developing the nation's oil fields. In any case, note how foreign-state-owned corporations like Malaysia's Petronas and China's CNPC have been able to grab significant slices of Iraq's oil reserves, with neither China nor Malaysia being in favour of the war in the first place. None of this is to say, however, that oil played no role in the decision-making that led to the invasion. It did, in the sense that it was believed that Saddam posed a threat to the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf.
- On some occasions, what might be seen as indicators of a better quality of life had unfortunate side effects. Today, there is certainly a much greater availability of consumer goods, which owe their origin to cheap imports from Turkey, China and Iran that came into Iraq after the CPA lifted import tariffs. However, some local Iraqi businesses lost out as a result and the problem of unemployment was aggravated early on after the invasion. In addition, with greater ownership of consumer goods, real demand for electricity has soared, such that despite the overall increase in electrical output, the average availability of electricity in terms of hours per day has decreased in Baghdad, for example.
- As Freedom House's report on Iraq for this year says:
"Iraq is not [emphasis my own] an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections [which were generally deemed free and fair last year], political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers."
Nonetheless, I would say FH's report is wrong to count "the influence of foreign powers" as a notable factor in impairing political participation and decision-making. See  below.
- Two cases in point will suffice here. In Hilla, sixty miles south of Baghdad, a $4 million maternity hospital built by the U.S. is largely unable to serve its purpose because the staff cannot operate most of the equipment. Likewise, a sewage treatment system in Fallujah, at a cost of $104 million, has been left partly finished, unable to operate at full capacity and only able to serve at most one sixth of the city's residents because of poor quality work on construction and a lack of sufficiently trained Iraqi staff to put it to proper use.
- Besides impeding foreign investment, bureaucracy in Iraq severely hinders Iraqi efforts at reconstruction. For instance, by 2014, the Iraqi government hopes to have completed the construction of 2 million housing units as part of a 5-year development plan, aiming to relieve the country's housing crisis. A number of business deals have been signed on paper, but little has been done in practice. In May of last year, Karbala strove to construct 250 housing units in 4 months, yet by the end of June, nothing happened because red tape prevented obtaining the necessary licenses to begin construction. The project in Karbala subsequently appears to have disappeared into thin air.
- As with places like Dubai, it is often the case that companies that have imported cheap labour from the Indian subcontinent have deceived those looking for employment abroad, lying about wages and not telling them that their destination would be Iraq. Thankfully, the Iraqi government has begun to notice this problem, and is accordingly sending these migrants home with sufficient compensation.
- See here for an explanation. There is an unhealthy obsession over what is perceived as massive Iranian influence on the Iraqi government and the country as a whole, such that Iraq is sometimes wrongly derided as an Iranian satrap.
- It might be of interest to readers that my friend Matthew Hoh, who currently directs the Afghanistan Study Group, worked on reconstruction projects in Tikrit, and his performance compared well with most other rebuilding efforts in Iraq. Sadly, he lost a friend in the assault on the provincial government buildings in Tikrit.