You gotta have friends

Posted in Iraq | 24-Nov-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

LONDON - So I step off the plane in London and the British customs guy sees on my form that I'm a journalist and asks, "Is it true there are more police to protect your president in London than there are in Baghdad?"

Then I pick up The Independent and I see that London's left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone, has denounced President George W. Bush as "the greatest threat to life on this planet that we've most probably ever seen."

Then I check out The Guardian, which carried open letters to the president, one of which is from the famous playwright Harold Pinter, who says: "Dear President Bush, I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood."

No Dorothy, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

We're in Britain, America's closest ally in the Iraq war - a country where Bush still has many supporters, but also a legion of detractors. But if this is how some of America's best friends are talking, imagine how difficult it is going to be to win over America's more ambivalent allies - to widen support for the rebuilding of Iraq.

To be sure, some people will never be winnable because they hate America above all else. (That may explain why you don't see any protesters here carrying signs saying, "Death to bin Laden," "Saddam: How many Iraqis did you kill today?" or "Mr. Bush: Thanks for believing in Arab democracy.")

But there is also a whole constituency in Europe and the Middle East who are upset with Bush because of what he does, not who he is. They can be won over, or at least neutralized, so their governments can be more supportive on Iraq. But it will require a policy lobotomy by the Bush team.

Tom Malinowski, from Human Rights Watch, perfectly described Bush's core problem: When you look at the muted reaction to the president's important speech on the need for democracy in the Arab world, you see that "President Bush has moral clarity, but no moral authority." He has a vision - without influence among the partners needed to get it moving. His is a beautifully carved table - with only one leg.

The Bush team's decision to change course in Iraq, and to transfer authority by July 1 to an interim government indirectly elected by community leaders from each of Iraq's 18 governates, is a good new start for generating legitimacy for the U.S. presence in Iraq. I do not know if this plan will work, but those who dismiss it as a cut-and-run strategy have it wrong. This plan is actually the only way America can stay. Only a legitimate Iraqi authority can give cover for a long-term U.S. presence and do what it takes to finish the war.

But this policy shift is not enough. It needs shifts toward Europe and the Middle East, too. It is amazing, say British officials, how little the Bush team has done to shore up Tony Blair for taking his hugely important (and unpopular) pro-war stance. Blair needs the United States to drop its outrageous steel tariffs, to provide a workable alternative to Kyoto, to hand over the nine British citizens held in Guantánamo Bay and to let London play around with the EU on a European defense force, which is not a threat to NATO. But so far, he appears to be getting nothing.

Blair was too principled for his own good. He was so convinced the war was right, he never played hardball with the Bush team to get it to adopt the other policies needed to sustain British support, and which would also have increased Bush's authority throughout Europe.

In the Middle East, now is the time for a fresh Bush diplomatic initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the persistence of which is toxic for America's influence - and to revive the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Bringing in the Syrians is important, because they know the guys who know the guys who are hurting America in Iraq.

Iraq is the most audacious nation-building project America has ever engaged in. But to succeed, we Americans needs partners - not only to help, but to provide legitimacy so we can sustain it. Right now, though, we are operating in a context of enormous global animosity. We are dancing alone. We can't let this stop us. We can't cater to every whim - but we can't just ignore it all, especially when it comes from our friends. Because there is no country in the world that we can't smash alone, and there is no country in the world we can rebuild alone - certainly not one as big and complex as Iraq.