America has to realize it's starting from scratch

Posted in Iraq | 30-Aug-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

BAGHDAD - As I was riding back from the United Nations office in Baghdad a few days ago, I came to an intersection where an Iraqi civilian in a brown robe was directing traffic. I don't know whether he was a good Samaritan or simply out of his mind, but he had a big smile on his face and was waving cars here and there with the flourish of a symphony conductor. Some cars obeyed his directives, and others didn't, but he was definitely better than nothing - and he was definitely having a good time.

This man came to mind as I thought about the debate over whether the United States has enough troops in Iraq. The truth is, America doesn't even have enough people to direct traffic. This troops issue, though, is more complicated than it seems - because it's not just about numbers. No, what America needs in Iraq today is something more complex: the right mentality, the right Iraqi government and the right troops. Let me explain.

Let's start with mentality. America is not "rebuilding" Iraq. It is "building" a new Iraq - from scratch. (This is going to cost so much more than President George W. Bush has said.) Not only has Saddam Hussein's army, party and bureaucracy collapsed, but so, too, has the internal balance between Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, which was held together by Saddam's iron fist. Also, the reporting on Iraq under Saddam rarely conveyed how poor and rundown Saddam had made it. Iraq today is the Arab Liberia.

Which leads to the second point. Yes, America needs more boots on the ground in Iraq, but it also needs the right mix: military police, experts in civilian affairs and officers who know how to innovate. Sure, there is still a guerrilla war to be won, but the main task today for U.S. soldiers in Iraq is political: helping towns get organized, opening schools and managing the simmering tensions between, and within, different ethnic groups. If Bulgarian or Polish troops can help do that, bring 'em on. If not, stay home.

Just ask Colonel Ralph Baker, commander of the Second Brigade, who oversees two Baghdad districts. He and his officers have been conducting informal elections for local councils and getting neighborhoods to nominate their own trusted police.

"First we taught them how to run a meeting," he told me in his Baghdad office. "We had to teach them how to have an agenda. So instead of having this sort of group dialogue with no form, which they were used to, you now see them in council meetings raising their hands to speak."

"There is a big education process going on here that is democratically founded," Baker said. "The faster we get Iraqis taking responsibility, the faster we get out of here."

And that leads to the third point: America needs to get the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council to do three things - now. It must name a cabinet, so Iraqis are running every ministry; announce a 300,000-person jobs program, so people see some tangible benefits delivered by their own government; and rehire any Iraqi army soldier who wants to serve in the new army, as long as he was not involved in Saddam's crimes. It was a huge mistake to disband the Iraqi army, without enough U.S. troops to take their place.

Together, all of this would put much more of an Iraqi face on the government and security apparatus, and begin to reclaim the mantle of Iraqi nationalism for the new government, taking it away from Saddam loyalists - who are trying to make a comeback under the phony banner of liberating Iraq from foreign occupation.

I have to repeat the dictum of Harvard's president, Larry Summers: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." Most Iraqis still feel they are renting their own country - first from Saddam and now from America. They have to be given ownership. If the Bush team is ready to put in the time, energy and money to make that happen - great. But if not, it's going to have to make the necessary compromises to bring in the United Nations and the international community to help.