For most of the Iraq war and its immediate aftermath, it was easy for any relatively rational person to dismiss the media doom-mongering. Hundreds of thousands of dead civilians? Never gonna happen. Hand-to-hand street-fighting as Baghdad morphs into Stalingrad? Dream on. Even that Iraqi National Museum "disaster" was an obvious hoax, though I was sad to see my friends at The Spectator fall for it and add their own peculiar twist that it was all a conspiracy of a sinister US antiquities lobby.
But, when the naysayers started moving on to claim that the whole post-war scene was going disastrously for the Yanks, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. As a general rule of thumb, when two non-government organisations, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, the BBC and the New York Times agree that the whole powder keg's about to go up, it's a safe bet that things are going swimmingly. But who knows? Even these guys have got to be right once a decade or so. So I decided to see for myself.
Unlike those parliamentary delegations getting ferried around by the military and Continental television crews embedded with convoys of NGOs, I have no contacts either in the Ministry of Defence or the World Food Programme. So I hopped on a flight to Jordan, rented some beat-up Nissan piece of junk in Amman and headed east. . . .
Although the camp had set up enough tents for hundreds, the members of this family were the only refugees in residence. The singular of that "IRAQI BOARDER" sign was a slight exaggeration, but not by much. And that underpopulated border camp is a fine motif for what's going on: vast numbers of bureaucrats are running around Iraq with unlimited budgets in search of a human catastrophe that doesn't exist.
"Had a lot of refugees?" I asked the Jordanian customs officer.
"We had about 10 through last week," he said. "Palestinians."
"Where were they headed? Amman?"
"No, he said. "They were going back to Iraq."
Apparently, having fled across the Jordanian border to the UN facility near Ruweished, they concluded after a few days that the camp wasn't quite up to snuff and decided to go back home. . . .
And perhaps that's why I found rather more hostility towards the WFP, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees et al than towards the military. "Americans only in the sky," one man told me, grinning as a chopper rumbled overhead. "No problem." Down on the ground, meanwhile, the new imperial class are the NGOs. They shuttle across the globe, mingling with their own kind - other SUV users - and bringing with them the values of the mother country, or the mother bureaucracy. Like many imperialists, they're well-meaning: they see their charges as helpless and dependent, which happy condition has the benefit of justifying an ever-growing aid bureaucracy in perpetuity. It will be very destructive for Iraq if the tentativeness of the American administration in Baghdad allows the ambulance-chasers of the NGOs to sink their fangs into the country. . . .
In Ramadi, in another cafe, the maitre d', in honour of my presence, flipped the television over to BBC World. Some Beeb type was doing a piece about some Baghdadi who hadn't been paid since March. Now what sort of fellow hasn't been paid since March? A chap who worked for the toppled thug government perhaps? Might be a committed thug ideologue, might be just a go-along-to-get-along type. But, given that the new Iraqi government is never going to be as huge as the old one, maybe that chap should just stop whining to the BBC and look for a gig in the private sector. Ditto for the BBC reporter, come to that.
As usual, the piece wound up with the correspondent standing in the children's ward of the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre predicting more doom and gloom. By contrast, every medical facility I went to in Iraq was well short of capacity. The NGO types concede that Iraqis aren't exactly rushing the hospitals, but say that's because they know that there are no drugs and/or they're worried that they can't afford them. Might be that. Or it might be that they don't want to be stuck on a ward trying to get a moment's sleep under the blazing lights of round-the-clock CNN and BBC camera crews filming their reporter yakking away in front of a telegenic moppet whose acute tonsillitis is somehow all Rumsfeld's fault. These days, I always laugh my head off at BBC World reports. And, in that Ramadi cafe, I was touched to find that, even though most of them hadn't a clue what he was going on about, within half a minute, the rest of the crowd was roaring along with me.
UPDATE: The link to the Steyn piece was bad earlier. It should work now.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Justin Katz notes that if Steyn's report is accurate, it's better to be a store owner in Iraq after a war than to be a store owner in a European city after a G8 meeting.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Mickey Kaus writes that Steyn's story would be more convincing if he'd gone to Baghdad. On the other hand, I would find a lot of the gloom-and-doom reporting more convincing if it came from elsewhere than Baghdad. Iraq's a big place, and what (small) reporting there has been out of cities like Kirkuk and Mosul is a lot more positive.