Iraq, ballots and pistachios

Posted in Iraq | 13-Dec-04 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Iraqi man walks past posters calling Iraqis to prepare for the coming national elections in Baghdad.
DOHA, Qatar On the flight over to the Gulf, I was reading an article in The Financial Times about NATO fighting with itself over whether to send a few dozen more trainers to Baghdad to help the Iraqi Army. I couldn't help wondering to myself: Let's see, there are now 26 countries in NATO. If each NATO country contributed just 100 soldiers, roughly speaking we could have five NATO soldiers guarding every polling station in Iraq for the January election.

That would be a huge help. After all, what does NATO stand for today if not for helping to protect a free and fair election in Iraq that is being opposed by a virulent minority whose only motto is: "You vote, you die - elections must fail." Is it so much to ask that each NATO country contribute 100 soldiers for a long weekend to advance the prospect of Iraqi elections? Heck, I'll throw in the airfare myself. I have so many frequent-flier miles, I could even fly over a few hundred soldiers from European Union countries that aren't in NATO.

Wait a minute, did I say European Union? Do you know how many trees have been cut down to publish studies about the European Defense Initiative - the EU's quest to build a military force independent of NATO and America? Whole forests have been devoted to studies of EDI.

So I was thinking: What does EDI stand for today, if not for sending 500 EU soldiers to Iraq for a long weekend so that Iraqis might begin to create the first real bottom-up democracy in the Arab League?

Wait a minute, did I say Arab League? The Arab League has been sniping at the United States from the minute it toppled Saddam's tyranny, constantly barking that the Iraqi government there was not representative. Well, now we're trying to help elect one that would be the most representative in the Arab world, and what is the Arab League doing? Virtually nothing. Why couldn't it offer to send some Arab and Muslim soldiers to protect polling places in the Sunni towns of Iraq?

If only we could call the Iraqi election "A Seminar on the European Defense Initiative: Why NATO Is Passé and EDI Is the Future," then we could get thousands of Europeans to take part. If only we could call the Iraqi elections, "A Seminar on George Bush and Genghis Khan: Why Bush Is Worse," then the Arab League would send so many people, we'd be turning them away. We'd be talking pay-per-view on Al-Jazeera.

Hey, look, I have no idea what sort of government the Iraqis might elect. I believe it's their first step in a thousand-mile journey to make that country something halfway decent and normal. But I do know this: There are a lot of Iraqis who would really like the chance to vote on their future, just once, and there is a virulent minority that is butchering people there just so they can never have that chance.

Yes, the Bush team's incompetence in securing Iraq is a travesty. But even with all that said, is it such a hard call for Arabs and Europeans to figure out on whose side they should be? Do these people really feel good about not lifting a finger?

"We in Iraq have a lot of disappointment with many of our neighbors," Ghazi al-Yawar, Iraq's interim president, told me the other day while he was visiting Washington. Yawar described Iraq's neighbors as sitting on a fence "dangling their legs and munching on pistachios," while "the forces of darkness" try to rip Iraq to shreds. "We do not understand why a vicious suicide bomber who claims the lives of innocent civilians is a terrorist in one country and in Iraq he becomes a freedom fighter," added Yawar, a bright and decent man.

The situation in Iraq is a microcosm of what is going on in the whole Middle East today. Everywhere you turn, the debate is over but the fight is not - because determined minorities are determined to thwart the will of majorities, and the majorities are too weak or divided to push back. A vast majority of Israelis want to get out of Gaza, but a determined, potentially violent, fanatical Jewish minority has been holding them back. Among the Palestinians, the debate is over, but the fight is not. Most Palestinians clearly want an end to the conflict with Israel and a chance to live a normal life, but a determined minority from Hamas has been resisting. Most NATO countries (I hope) would prefer a decent outcome in Iraq, but a determined minority, more worried about an American success than an Iraqi failure, is holding NATO back.

So let the record show that when Iraq finally decided to hold a free and fair election, all the bad guys decided to come and "vote" and all the good guys sat on the fence, dangling their legs, eating pistachios.