As a visiting professor in Iraqi Kurdistan four years ago, I found that there were three words my University of Baghdad-trained interpreters could not translate: Debate, tolerance and compromise. The concepts did not exist in Hussein's Iraq. When I returned to Iraq in the aftermath of war, society was changing.
I watched city council meetings in places such as Kirkuk. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens compromised on issues that spanned the languages taught in public schools to affirmative action within the police force. In the southern city of Nasiriya, taxi drivers, religious students and engineers debated the merits of federalism.
Dire predictions of civil war between ethnic and sectarian groups did not materialize, despite terrorist bombings against Shiite processions, Christian churches and Kurdish celebrations.
Iraqis complain about security but are positive about the future. They reflect optimism not only in polls but also in actions. The new Iraqi currency, issued on Oct. 15, 2003, at 2,000 Iraqi dinars to the dollar, is free of Hussein's image. It is also free-floating, and even at the height of the April uprising and the battle for Najaf, it remained stable, trading between 1,400 and 1,500 dinars to the dollar. If Iraq is in trouble, don't tell the Canadians: The dinar regularly outperforms the Canadian dollar on international markets.
Iraqis also express confidence with investment, which spans the country. Electricity is unreliable, so restaurateurs have invested as much as $50,000 for top-model generators. A new clothing boutique represents a $200,000 investment. There are new hotels in Najaf and Karbala. Cigarette venders have traded pushcarts for tobacco shops. Kurdish investors are constructing a cancer treatment center in Erbil. In the slums of Sadr City, houses cost $45,000, nearly double their prewar value. In the swankier district of Mansur, new houses sell for more than 10 times that amount.
No Iraqi would invest his or her life savings if they feared civil war or perpetual lawlessness.
Freedom matters. Before the war, only the top 3,000 Hussein loyalists could access the Internet. Today, more than 100,000 households have dial-up connections. This number does not reflect the thousands of young Iraqi men who surf the Web (and try to pick up women) at cafes that dot cities, small towns and villages.
During Hussein's rule, 1 out of 6 Iraqis fled the country as refugees. Not only has there not been a mass exodus since Iraq's liberation, but more than a million refugees have returned.
Even at the height of the insurgents' bombing campaign, young men lined up at recruitment stations, not only for the salary but also to make Iraq a better place.
The television cameras do not lie, but they fail to give full perspective. The fiercest critics of the situation inside Iraq are those who have never been there. The coalition has made mistakes, and Iraqis are frequently frustrated at the pace of change. But they do see light at the end of the tunnel.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is currently in Iraq.