The Sole of Iraq

Posted Dec. 15, 2008, at 6:57 p.m.

On Sunday in Baghdad, President George Bush dodged a pair of shoes flung at him by an Iraqi television reporter. On Monday, thousands of protesters marched in support of the shoe thrower. This bizarre chain of events highlights the difficulty the next administration will face in its dealings with Iraq and other Mideast countries. At its center, rebuilding the sense that America understands and respects Middle Eastern culture and values is as important as rebuilding schools and training soldiers.

Muntazer al-Zaidi, in dramatic fashion, reminded the world of how large the divide between East and West has become.

A press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was part of President Bush’s farewell visit to Iraq. Just as the conference began, Mr. al-Zaidi hurled his shoes at the president, yelling in Arabic: “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.” He was quickly wrestled to the ground and remains in the custody of Iraqi officials.

Hitting someone with a shoe is one of the worst insults in the Middle East. It implies the person is lower than the dirt under one’s shoe.

While the incident was despicable, especially coming from a journalist, who is supposed to remain unbiased, the emotions behind it — and the subsequent marches — cannot be discounted.

“It indicates how much antagonism he’s been able to create in the whole region,” former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told Reuters.

“Although that action was not expressed in a civilized manner, it showed the feelings of Iraqis who refuse the American occupation,” Qutaiba Rajaa, a doctor in Samarra, told The New York Times.

Those feelings matter as much as security gains. President Bush is right that Iraq is more secure than in the years after the 2003 invasion. He was greeted with an official welcoming ceremony at Baghdad’s airport rather than sneaking in under darkness, as happened during previous visits. Many stores and restaurants have reopened and Iraqis walk the streets in many communities.

Although less prevalent, violence remains. Fifty people were killed in a suicide bombing in a restaurant in the northern city of Kirkuk late last week.

That President Bush would go to Iraq to brag about his administration’s success in improving the country is astounding to Bahman Baktiari, director of the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine. So, too is his touting of a security agreement, which despite passage by the Iraqi parliament remains very unpopular there. And his talking of “victory” in Iraq for five years when little has really improved there.

The result is shown in a report by the Inspector General for Iraq, a copy of which was obtained by the Times. Despite nearly $120 billion ($50 billion from the United States) spent on Iraqi reconstruction, the only service that has reached pre-war levels is mobile phone coverage. Electricity produc-tion, access to drinking water and security force presence — things that make everyday living possible for Iraqis — remain below 2003 levels.

The consequence is a reporter hurling his shoes in anger and frustration — and being hailed by his countrymen as a hero.

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