Will the neighbors approve?

February 06, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - In talking with Bush administration officials of late, I am struck by an incredible contrast - between the breathtaking audacity of what they intend to do in Iraq and the incredibly narrow base of support that exists in America today for this audacious project.

They are gearing up for the rebuilding of Iraq, along the lines of the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after World War II, and the nation is geared up, at best, for the quick and dirty invasion of Grenada.

It is this contrast that worries me most. I am not worried about the Arabs and Turks - the key regimes will support this war. I am not worried about "the Arab street." Anyone who has walked there lately knows Saddam Hussein has very little support. I'm not even worried about France.

No - I'm worried about my neighbors.

I've had a chance to travel all across the country since September, and I can say there was not a single audience I spoke to where I felt there was a majority in favor of war in Iraq.

The dominant mood is: "Mr. President, we don't want to be against you in a war on terrorism. But do we really have to do this? My 401(k) is now a 201(k), heading for a 101(k). Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. The Europeans are uncovering new terrorist cells right and left. And I have walked through so many airport metal detectors in the last year that I now glow in the dark. I understand what the Afghan war was about - but I just don't get this war."

I don't care what the polls say, this is the real mood. Now, truth be told, I think I get this war, and, on balance, I think it is a risk worth taking - provided we have a country willing to see it through. But it is time the president leveled with the country - not just about the dangers posed by Mr. Hussein, but about the long-term costs involved in ousting him and rebuilding Iraq. This is not going to be Grenada.

This war has two purposes - one stated, one unstated - but both require the same means. The stated purpose is to disarm Iraq. The unstated purpose is to transform it from a totalitarian system that has threatened its neighbors and its own people into something better. It won't be a perfect democratic state. But it can be a more decent state - one that doesn't threaten its own people or neighbors. And it can serve as a progressive model to spur reform - educational, religious, economic and political - around the Arab world. This is the audacious part.

But, as I said, whether your goal is simply disarmament or audacious transformation doesn't really matter. Because in the end they will both require the same means: breaking apart Mr. Hussein's Iraq, its governing structure, party system and intelligence networks, and replacing them with a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq.

A hit-and-run invasion is not an option. Iraq will be controlled by the iron fist of the U.S. Army and its allies, with an Iraqi civilian "advisory" administration gradually emerging to run daily life and produce an Iraqi self-governing authority.

The unstated logic is that the real threat to open societies today comes from all the angry young men and women being produced by the misgovernance, backwardness and extremism emanating from that part of the world. And if that anger results in another 9/11 it will mean the end of the open society as we know it, and globalization as we know it.

That is why helping the Arab-Muslim world get onto a different course is the only meaningful response to 9/11. But it is a long-term, difficult, risky, costly, audacious project. It is one that will require a real nation-building commitment, and a real effort to stabilize the region by simultaneously promoting a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is the Bush team up for all that? Is the nation up for all that? I'm not sure.

What I am sure of is that if we will the ends, we better will the means. Therefore it's time for the president to level with the American people about what will be required to make this war a success. Because ultimately it is the support of the American people that will determine whether we have the means to see it through.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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