Out of the Frying Pan

AN AIR BASE IN KUWAIT - When I flew out of Baghdad, leaving Iraq this most recent of dozens of times, something felt different. Usually when we reach cruising altitude, higher than any stray round or MANPAD system can reach, the relief is distinct and exquisite. This time the feeling was more melancholy: not because I was leaving a country soon to be rendered back to its own people, but because for once I felt like I was leaving Iraq to go somewhere less attractive.

I can't criticize Kuwait the country in absolute terms, because all I have seen of it was a brutally inefficient airport and a desiccated strip of highway. At the airport I waited two hours to prove I did not have swine flu (proof consisted in filling out a form), and the desiccated buildings that lined the highway appeared grungy or at best unloved.

What makes the comparison stark, and different from before, is that Iraq's future has gone from dismal to uncertain. Kuwait's air base, by contrast, with its scorching heat, its institutional feel, seems to lack promise and hope utterly. It will never be anything greater than it already is. Iraq will almost certainly improve, though my confidence in the short-term is weak. If Jim Cramer were screaming about Iraq, he would change its rating from "DON'T BUY" to "RISKY." I wish I could have stayed there for months, and more in the company of Iraqis than of Marines. (Perhaps later this year -- stay tuned.)

In the meantime, Afghanistan is next.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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