Electricity? What electricity?

When something isn’t going how the Bush administration wants it to, its officials tend to use one of two ingenious methods of obfuscation: portray the issue mendaciously, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Apparently the wheel stopped at “doesn’t exist” last week, as the LA Times reports that the administration decided to stop reporting to Congress the status of electricity in Baghdad.

There are a few concrete indicators of quality of life in Iraq, including things like hours of electricity, waste (sewage) disposal, and amount of drinkable water. Electricity is a major one for several reasons. It indicates whether air conditioners are working (and let me say from personal experience that 130 degrees is no joke — I’d get violent if I had to live in that all summer), affects health and diet (because of refrigeration, or lack thereof), and it also has a tremendous impact on what little economy Iraq has left — imagine trying to run any kind of business with no power.

In the past several months, hours of power in Baghdad have gone from five to six per day to “an hour or two,” according to Ryan Crocker, our ambassador to Iraq. Until Crocker’s testimony last week, Congress was apparently uninformed of this regression because the State department stopped estimating how many hours of electricity the people of Baghdad receive. They switched, instead, to an estimate of national electrical production, which can have little correlation to power actually received.

Insurgencies depend on local support. That support dries up when people feel they are being adequately taken care of by the government. Electricity is near the top of that list. Iraqis look at the U.S. and think (and frequently ask), if you could put a man on the moon, why can’t you get us electricity? And after a while, incompetence tends to get interpreted as malice. But don’t take my word for it that it’s an Iraqi priority — Ambassador Crocker himself recently told CBS news that electricity was “more important to the average Iraqi than all 18 benchmarks rolled up into one.”

And what’s the official reason for ceasing to report this metric? “The change, a State Department spokesman said, reflects a technical decision by reconstruction officials in Baghdad who are scaling back efforts to estimate electricity consumption as they wind down U.S. involvement in rebuilding Iraq’s power grid.” Just as the summer starts to heat up and hours of power are plummeting to near-nonexistence, we’re . . . winding down U.S. involvement in rebuilding Iraq’s power grid.

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