Dealing with Iraq’s Great Depression

Stephen DeAngelis

December 13, 2007

When Americans think about the Great Depression of the 1930s, they think about soup kitchens, unemployment, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Those people who managed to remain employed during the depression were considered fortunate. To some extent that is the situation facing people in southern Iraq (the northern Kurdish sector is booming in comparison). The U.S. just announced a new approach for dealing with the lack of jobs and the lack of security in the south. It is a mixture of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society programs [“U.S. Plans to Form Job Corps For Iraqi Security Volunteers,” by Karen DeYoung and Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, 7 December 2007]. Once again it is the U.S. military leading the way.

“The U.S. military plans to establish a civilian jobs corps to absorb tens of thousands of mostly Sunni security volunteers whom Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has balked at hiring into local police forces. The new jobs program marks a sharp departure from one of the most highly touted goals of the so-called Sunni awakening, which was to funnel the U.S.-paid volunteers, many of them former insurgents, into Iraq’s police and military.”

The program aims at alleviating two of the most crucial challenges facing southern Iraq — jobs and security. As DeYoung and Paley report, the program is aimed primarily at Sunni citizens who have been unable to find work under the Shi’ite regime. The program has raised questions, however.

“President Bush and Gen. David H. Patraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, have said the volunteers have played a major role in the recent downturn in violence and would provide a key element of local security as U.S. forces draw down. Plans to reconfigure the program raise new questions about the permanence of security and political structures the United States has sought to impose on Iraq.”

The Bush administration’s program seems to be based on three assumptions. First, people need jobs so they can once again feel good about themselves and support their families. Second, jobs help the security situation by eliminating many unhappy and unemployed people from the list of potential insurgent supporters and, by giving them a stake in the future, Sunnis will get involved in the war against the insurgents. And third, the job program reduces sectarian violence by getting Sunni and Shi’ites working side by side.

“The Bush administration has described the hiring of the volunteers by police forces as proof that Iraqis are beginning to reconcile sectarian differences. Yet the government here has shown only grudging interest in the program, despite constant U.S. pressure. So far the Iraqi government has approved police jobs for only 1,738 members of what the United States calls the Concerned Local Citizens program, or CLC. Of a total 60,321 registered volunteers, about 51,190 are currently on short-term U.S. contracts that pay an average of $300 a month, officials said. The program has spread beyond Anbar province, and officials said new recruits appear daily in Baghdad and the central and northern parts of the country. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lagged in hiring the volunteers, more than three-quarters of whom are Sunnis. Sectarian concerns are ‘still an obstacle. I won’t lie to you about that,’ said Col. Martin Stanton, who tracks the program for Petraeus’s command. ‘They’re deeply suspicious of any organized group of Sunnis,’ Stanton said of the government.”

Perhaps the biggest change in the program is the expected outcome. The original program was aimed at training security forces. That focus has apparently shifted to jobs in general.

“The military still expects some volunteers to be hired as police officers but has concluded that the majority will not be. Fearing that the armed men might return to violence without long-term job prospects, it has decided to divert them into civilian work or send them to vocational training programs. It hopes to persuade the Iraqi government to take over management and financing of the reconfigured program — which will begin in January with a shift of 500 Baghdad volunteers from security tasks to public works — by the end of next year. Right now, Stanton said, the idea of an Iraqi takeover is ‘still in concept,’ and the government is ‘not in any way, shape or form ready to take over these contracts.’ He added that the military wants to avoid ending up with the Iraqis ‘dropping the baton in the relay race. … We want to make sure they’re running and ready to get it before we turn it over.'”

As I noted at the outset, this new program looks more like a Roosevelt or Johnson program and the military is not shy about noting the similarities.

“[Stanton] said the pilot program would be called the Civil Service Corps and compared it to the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era federal public works program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ‘We can’t pay them to stand on street corners with rifles forever,’ Stanton said of the volunteers. ‘We have to transition them into non-security type employment.’ He said that in some Sunni villages, virtually the entire male population had asked to be put on the U.S. payroll. ‘If there are 800 men in the town and they all want to be a guard, we can’t have them all guarding each other.’ A similar pilot for non-security CLC employment is being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of its existing Community Stabilization Program, according to USAID’s Iraq mission director, Christopher D. Crowley.”

Anyone whose parents were living or born around the time of the Great Depression probably knows someone who was a member of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Although the work was hard and the pay was scant, just having a job meant a great deal to those involved. In addition, a number of important public work projects were completed that had a lasting impact on America. Roosevelt’s primary goal was to instill hope in a society that had been drained of it. That is exactly what the military program is trying to do — instill hope in a society that for the past three years has seen little to be hopeful about.

 

The Maliki administration continues to have misgivings about the program; but those misgivings may be greatly allayed if a dramatic shift is made in the program from training security guards to vocational training.

“The slow pace of government vetting is largely what caused U.S. officials to decide that the CLC program should become a job corps. With tens of thousands of current U.S. contract-holders, the Iraqi government only last week completed months-long vetting of an additional 2,000, beyond the 1,738 already given police jobs in the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. At least 8,000 of the U.S.-paid volunteers remain in the vetting pipeline.”

Jobs are desperately needed in the south. One volunteer interviewed by DeYoung and Paley concurred that “jobs and monthly salaries … would help Iraqis turn away from war.” In every conflict there is a moment when it becomes ripe for new approaches because people have become tired of conflict. That moment may be approaching in southern Iraq. A jobs program is a good way to help ensure the moment does ripen.