Reality doses for Americans

Posted in United States | 30-Sep-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - The American public got a real tutorial in diplomacy last week, one that I suspect it could have done without. It was introduced to two concepts: the free rider and the war of choice. How the U.S. public digests these two concepts is going to have a huge impact on the next presidential election.

The free rider lesson was administered by all of America's friends, allies and rivals at the United Nations. President George W. Bush went up there last week, hat in hand, looking for financial and military support for the war he chose to launch in Iraq. I would summarize the collective UN response to Bush as follows:

"You talkin' to us? This is your war, pal. We told you before about Iraq: You break it alone, you own it alone. Well, you broke it, now you own it. We've got you over a barrel, because you and your taxpayers have no choice but to see this through, so why should we pay? If you make Iraq a success, we'll all enjoy the security benefits. We'll all get a free ride. And if you make a mess in Iraq, all the wrath will be directed at you and you alone will foot the bill. There is a fine line between being Churchill and being a chump, and we'll let history decide who you are. In the meantime, don't expect us to pay to watch. We were all born at night - but not last night."

Oh, I suspect if the United States manages to secure some new UN resolution giving more cover to the U.S. reconstruction of Iraq, Washington will scrounge up a few Indian or Turkish soldiers and maybe a few dollars, but nothing that will make a real dent in the $87 billion price tag the Bush team has presented to the American people.

Sorry folks, we Americans broke it, we own it, and the worst thing we could do now is start shortchanging ourselves. There is a move in Congress to fully finance that part of the $87 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq, but to slash the $20 billion for Iraqi schools and reconstruction.

That would be a big mistake. It is that $20 billion that is the key to getting out and leaving behind a reasonably stable, self-governing Iraq.

As if this weren't enough for one week, the U.S. public also got a lesson in wars of choice. It was administered by David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector who has been leading the U.S. team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Last week Kay gave an interim report indicating that in four months of searching in Iraq he has found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush cited as his principal reason for going to war.

What this means for the American people is this: The war to oust Saddam Hussein was always a war of choice - a good choice, I believe. But democracies don't like to fight wars of choice, and, if they do, they want them to be quick sprints, like Bosnia, Kosovo or Grenada - not marathons. Knowing this, the Bush team tried to turn Iraq into a war of necessity by hyping the weapons threat Saddam may have posed.

With Kay's interim report, it is now becoming clear that this was not a war of necessity at all; it was a war of choice, and, on top of it all, it was a war of choice that is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And, because the Bush team chose to start this marathon largely alone, the free-riding world is going to let us finish it, and pay for it, largely alone.

This is the cold, hard reality, and U.S. politics will now be about how we manage it. So far, notes Jeff Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, "the politics of the day, whether by Republicans or Democrats, has not been up to the magnitude of the task. There is disparity between the words people use to describe the challenge and any honest appraisal of what it's going to take to succeed."

Bush is deeply morally unserious when he tells Americans that we can succeed in this marathon and still have radical tax cuts for the rich and a soaring deficit, and the only people who will have to sacrifice are reservists and soldiers. And the Democrats had better decide: What is their party going to be about? Wallowing in the mess, endlessly criticizing how we got into Iraq, or articulating a broader, more realistic vision for successful nation-building there?

The lessons learned this week, and their implications, are gigantic. They will shape America's role in the world, its perception of itself and its ability to grapple with both foreign and domestic problems for years to come. I think the American people will see this through, but they want a pragmatic, strategically optimistic, morally serious plan to get behind. The leader who presents that will be the next president - I hope.