Iraq's silent majority

Posted in Iraq | 10-Apr-04 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - The United States is at a perilous juncture in Iraq. Two things are clear, and there's only one question left to be answered. What's clear is that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there are no Vietcong in Iraq. The key unanswered question is: Are there any Iraqis in Iraq? Is there a critical mass ready to identify themselves - not as Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis - but as Iraqis, who are ready to fight for the chance of self-determination for the Iraqi people as a whole?

When I say that there are no Vietcong in Iraq, I mean that the Iraqi "insurgents" opposing the United States today cannot plausibly claim to be the authentic expressions of Iraqi nationalism - as the Vietcong claimed to be in the Vietnam War. The forces killing Americans and Iraqi police are primarily Sunni Muslims who want to restore the rule and privileges of their minority community and Baath Party, or foreign and local Islamists who are trying to undermine any prospect of modernism, pluralism and secularism in Iraq.

Virtually every poll taken since the fall of Saddam indicates that neither of these groups - who have tried to disguise their real objectives behind a mask of anti-Americanism - represents the vast majority of Iraqis, who want to elect their own government, free of intimidation.

But wars are not won by polls. They are won by those ready to fight and die in the alleys for their cause. Armed, masked young Arab men - motivated by the toxic mix of radical Islam, anti-Americanism and humiliation, and high on the drug of defeating the hated foreigner, even if it will be ultimately self-defeating for them - can be turned back only by an Iraqi army motivated by a sense of nationhood and a desire for self-determination.

We Americans cannot want a decent Iraq more than the Iraqi silent majority. Because this is an urban war, and U.S. soldiers having to fight house to house inside Iraqi cities cannot win it. Only Iraqis can. If we try to fight this war ourselves, we will kill too many innocent Iraqis, blow up too many mosques and eventually turn the whole population against us - even if they know in their hearts that what we're trying to build is better than what the insurgents want.

In fairness to Iraqis, though, asking the silent majority there to stand up right now is asking a lot. After decades of Saddam's brutal rule, civil society there was just beginning to come back, and the first threads of trust between the different communities were just beginning to be tied. The whole purpose of the U.S. occupation was to build a constitutional framework in which this center could be developed.

This was always a long shot. But, I believe, after Sept. 11, trying to build a decent state in the heart of a drifting Arab-Muslim world - a world that is manufacturing millions of frustrated, unemployed youths - was worth trying. But it takes resources and legitimacy, and the Bush team has provided too little of both.

From the start, this has always been a Karl Rove war. Lots of photo-ops, lots of talk about "I am a war president," lots of premature banners about "Mission Accomplished," but totally underresourced, because the president never wanted to ask Americans to sacrifice. The Bush motto has been: "We're at war, let's party - let's cut taxes, forgo any gasoline tax, not mobilize too many reserves and, by the way, let's disband the Iraqi Army and unemploy 500,000 Iraqi males, because that's what Ahmad Chalabi and his pals want us to do."

From the day the looting started in Baghdad, it has been obvious that we did not have enough troops to create a secure framework and to control Iraq's borders. As a result, local militias began to spring up everywhere. If you turn on your television, you can see how well-armed they became while Donald Rumsfeld was insisting we had enough troops there to control Iraq.

I know the right thing to do now is to stay the course, defeat the bad guys, disarm the militias and try to build a political framework that will hold the now wavering Shiite majority on our side - because if we lose them, the game is over. But this will take time and sacrifice, and the only way to generate enough of that is by enlisting the United Nations, NATO and all of America's allies to make the development of a decent state in Iraq a global priority.

Without more allies, without more global legitimacy - and without an Iraqi center ready to stand up against their Khmer Rouge now posing as their Vietcong - the United States cannot win in Iraq. We will be building a house with bricks and no cement. In that case, we will have to move to Plan B. Too bad we never really had Plan A.