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US riots don’t ‘look like Baghdad’


It’s become a trope as common as it is stupid. The Daily Mail titled a recent article describing violent protests in Portland, Oregon, with the quote, “It looks like downtown Baghdad.” An alternative Miami paper made the same analogy to describe street violence there, but there is no partisan monopoly on the Baghdad-bashing. Fox News talking head Maria Bartiromo also used the comparison. Football coach Tommy Tuberville, now the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama, described Lubbock, Texas, as essentially Iraq, as did Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, when talking about Ferguson. When construction tore apart Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel likewise quipped, “It looks like Baghdad.” It was the same thing after asbestos remediation in an Oakland, California, mall. Other newspapers have used the quote to describe everything from hurricane damage to fires.

President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was deeply polarizing. When U.S. forces and their allies got bogged down in insurgency, many politicians who initially supported Saddam Hussein’s ouster flip-flopped. Speaking to a university audience in West Virginia, then-Sen. John Kerry famously explained that he voted to authorize funds for the Iraq War before he voted against it. Especially among Democrats, but also among Republicans, a past vote, let alone sustained support for the Iraq War, is seen as a disqualifying original sin.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Baghdad as urban slang for anything bad or violent is how those making the analogies have spent so little, if any, time there. In December 2018, the United Nations stopped publishing monthly statistics on terrorist violence in Iraq because the number had fallen so low. In that month, terrorists killed 32 people across the entirety of Iraq at a time the country’s population surpassed 40 million. The odds, therefore, of dying in a terrorist attack in Baghdad were about one in a million. In comparison, the odds of getting struck by lightning are twice as great. As for street crime, that’s more an American or European phenomenon than an Iraqi one.

It may sound trite or even apologetic to suggest that there is a new Iraq, but quite literally, there is.

Just under 40% of Iraqis are age 14 or under. That means they were not alive under Hussein’s rule, and even the Bush-era surge predates most of them. Add another 20% who are between the ages 15 and 24, plus those just a few years older, and over two-thirds of Iraqis were born after the 1991 war and were, at most, 12 years old when Saddam fell.

American commentators are frozen in time. Iraqis neither have the luxury nor the detachment from reality. Certainly, Iraqis have suffered more than their fair share of tragedies over the decades, but it would be wrong to suggest that Iraq is ever teetering on the brink of failure, for Iraqis are also incredibly resilient. When any nationality constantly defeats the odds, it is right to question whether the problem is with them or the bookmakers.

Then there is a notion that Baghdad is ugly or gritty. It is and it is not. It’s not shiny like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it has its charm: medieval universities, state-of-the-art museums, the remnants of old Jewish houses, Hussein’s gaudy memorials, the best open-air book market in the Middle East (if not the world), and, of course, Abu Nawas Street alongside the Tigris River with masgouf grilling on barbecues. The restaurant culture in Baghdad is booming, and Iraqis flock to amusement parks at night to relax and smoke shisha while their children ride Ferris wheels. As someone with young children, one of the greatest Baghdad innovations is the restaurant with an attached playroom with a live feed into the dining area so parents can deposit their kids and have a relaxing meal without getting up to check on their toddlers or tweens every few minutes. Baghdad’s new malls rival Abu Dhabi’s and put many of their decaying equivalents in the United States to shame. Dilapidated buildings abound, but their numbers shrink every month as investors tear them down and build new ones or give face-lifts to the old.

Yes, Iraq faces tremendous problems. Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi entered office after widespread protests about his predecessors’ failure to deliver. He faces problems with everything from electricity provision to COVID-19 to inflated public service rolls, all with a treasury bled dry by corrupt or incompetent predecessors such as Nouri al Maliki and Adil Abdul-Mahdi. But Iraq is not a cheap analogy or a political football to be kicked around in the American partisan arena. Pundits and politicians might make cheap analogies that the problem de jour in American cities makes them look like Baghdad. Frankly, they should be so lucky.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

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