Optimism on Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 25-Sep-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

I am an optimist by nature, and last week in Tel Aviv an Israeli friend told me he knew why. He said it was because I was short - and short people tend to be optimists because they can only see the part of the glass that is half full, not half empty.

These days, though, even someone at my eye level is having a hard time seeing the part of the glass in Iraq that is half full. I am still an optimist on Iraq, but a "worried optimist." My optimism is based on one big thing that has happened - and my worrying is based on two smaller things that have not.

The big thing that has happened in Iraq, which you can really feel when you're there, is that there is a 100 percent correlation of interests between America's aspirations for Iraq and the aspirations of Iraq's silent majority. We both want the same thing for Iraq - that it not become Iran, that it not become Saddam, but that it become a modern-looking Iraqi alternative. This overlap of aspirations is hugely important. This is not Vietnam.

This also explains why the remnants of Saddam's order, who want all their old privileges and powers back, have had to go to such incredible lengths - bombing the UN office and the most holy mosque in Shiite Islam. It is not easy to break apart the overlap of interests between America and the Iraqi silent majority. It has real weight and inertia: The Iraqi Governing Council has appointed ministers, the ministers are getting the government running, normality is returning to many streets.

But here's what's worrying. The resistance from the Saddamists is getting stronger. It is becoming so strong, I would argue, that a new war needs to be mounted against the Saddamist forces in the Sunni triangle near Baghdad. Two Republican Guard divisions just melted away in this area and they still have to be defeated. The war has to be finished, but we can't be the ones to finish it. This is a purely urban fight, and if we try to finish it alone what will happen is more of what's happened in the past two weeks - fatal blunders. We just accidentally killed 10 Iraqi policemen in one town and gunned down a 14-year-old Iraqi boy in another who was part of a wedding party firing guns in celebration. Non-Arabic-speaking Americans cannot fight an urban war in Iraq. Forget it. We must get off this course immediately.

If we have many more such incidents, even the Iraqi silent majority will turn hostile. That is what the Saddamists want. Which is why I will stop worrying about this only when I see that the new Iraqi government has formed its own robust internal security force (now being discussed), with its own intelligence assets, to fight the Saddamists by the local rules. That is the only way to root them out, and only Iraqis can fight this war. If Americans have to keep killing Iraqis, we're dead.

The other thing that will make me stop being a worried optimist, is when I not only see Iraqis fighting for the aspirations we have in common, but when I hear them speaking out to defend those aspirations in public - in Arabic. Whenever senior U.S. officials tell me about Iraqis who thanked them, with tears in their eyes, for getting rid of Saddam, I have a simple response: Could you please ask those Iraqis to say it in public, in Arabic, on Al Jazeera TV? There's been way too little of that. In part, this is because many Iraqis are still afraid that we're going to leave and Saddam will come back and punish all who worked with us.

In part, this is because America is so radioactive in the Arab-Muslim world that even an America that has come to Iraq with the sole intention of liberating its people cannot be openly embraced. In part this is because while we think we've "liberated" Iraq, and deserve applause, we forget the fact that Iraqis couldn't liberate themselves is deeply humiliating for them, and our mere presence there reminds them of that. And in part, it's because while we and the Iraqis share the same broad aspirations, it doesn't seem to them that we have a workable plan to achieve them.

We need to ease those doubts, and Iraqis need to get over them, because we can't stay as long as we need to, to get the job done, without Iraqis ready to defend the progressive outcome we both aspire to.

Friedman's first rule of Middle East reporting: What people tell you in private is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public. And when I see Iraqis defending our shared aspirations - with both their words and their lives - my optimism will know no bounds and every glass will look full.