Not for the first time, the debate in the US over Iraq has gotten bogged down in useless carping. The candidates are edging closer to each other's policies on when and whether to pull out of the country, but keep shouting louder about the remaining distinctions.
Instead, a modest suggestion for how to move the debate forward: offer ideas about how to actually make more gains in Iraq. Take the economy. What should the US be doing to help Iraq's economic recovery?
The improved security situation has opened up a chance for economic recovery. The IMF has predicted growth of more than 7%, using heroically low assumptions for oil prices. Other gains include the establishment of a pension system, a sharp reduction in inflation, and huge strides in improving the banking system.
But jobs are still tough to come by. So is electricity. High oil prices are a possible bright spot, but massive amounts of investment are still necessary. Despite the opening of a stock exchange, making just about anything still seems to be a huge challenge.
This isn't just an economics issue (though the material well-being of a country we've invaded and occupied should be a concern in and of itself). There are important security issues at stake. The Christian Science Monitor has reported that US troops are becoming increasingly concerned that the "Sons of Iraq" - the Sunni neighborhood guards that have done the lion's share of the work in pacifying the country over the past year - might begin to abuse their positions, or return to the pay of terrorist groups, if jobs aren't forthcoming. Patronage networks and good old-fashioned corruption are returning, carrying the potential to reignite sectarian conflict.
Senator Obama's Iraq policy page doesn't mention the Iraqi economy. Senator McCain's, to his credit, does, but focuses mostly on laying out goals (like more jobs, social services, etc.). The real question is how you get these things. Microcredit and investment from Iraq's neighbors, as McCain suggests on his site, won't be enough.
U.S. personnel on the ground seem to be doing all that they can to jump-start the economy: the military is funneling money to infrastructure projects and trying to hire locally as much as possible; diplomats are hard at work lobbying for improved investment laws and regulations. But are these efforts enough? Could they benefit from higher-level cheerleading? Should they be redirected? Should we spend more money? Or is the money we're already spending just wasted? What role should investment from foreign oil companies play?
These questions don't have neat, partisan answers. Which means that, by answering them, the candidates, their surrogates, and the pundits could actually move the debate forward a bit. Unfortunately, it also means these questions are unlikely to come up.