Neglected groundwork

March 04, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - Watching this Iraq story unfold, all I can say is this: If this were not about my own country, my own kids and my own planet, I'd pop some popcorn, pull up a chair and pay good money just to see how this drama unfolds.

Because what you are about to see is the greatest shake of the dice that any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan. Vietnam was a huge risk, but it evolved incrementally. And threatening a nuclear war with the Soviets over the Cuban missile crisis was a huge shake of the dice by John F. Kennedy, but it was a gamble that was imposed on him, not one that he initiated.

A U.S. invasion to disarm Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein and rebuild a decent Iraqi state would be the mother of all presidential gambles. Anyone who thinks President Bush is doing this for political reasons is nuts. You could do this only if you really believed in it, because Mr. Bush is betting his whole presidency on this war of choice.

And don't believe the polls. I've been to nearly 20 states recently, and I've found that 95 percent of the country wants to see Iraq dealt with without a war. But Mr. Bush is a man on a mission. He has been convinced by a tiny group of advisers that throwing "the long bomb" - attempting to transform the most dangerous Arab state - is a geopolitical game-changer. It could help nudge the whole Arab-Muslim world onto a more progressive track, something that coaxing simply will not do anymore. It's something that can only be accomplished by building a different model in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. No, you don't see this every day. This is really bold.

And that leads to my dilemma. I have a mixed marriage. My wife opposes this war, but something in Mr. Bush's audacious shake of the dice appeals to me. He summed it up well in his speech last week: "A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America's interest in security and America's belief in liberty both lead in the same direction - to a free and peaceful Iraq."

While I believe in such a bold project, I fear that Mr. Bush has failed to create a context for his boldness to succeed, a context that could maximize support for his vision - support vital to seeing it through. He and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it. The only place they've been bold is in their military preparations (which have at least gotten Mr. Hussein to begin disarming).

What do I mean? I mean that if taking out Mr. Hussein and rebuilding Iraq had been my goal from the minute I took office (as it was for the Bush team), I would not have angered all of Europe by trashing the Kyoto global warming treaty without offering an alternative.

I would not have alienated the entire Russian national security elite by telling the Russians that we were ripping up the ABM Treaty and that they would just have to get used to it. (You're now seeing their revenge.) I would not have proposed one radical tax cut on top of another on the eve of a huge, costly nation-building marathon abroad.

I would, though, have rallied the nation for real energy conservation and initiated a Manhattan Project for alternative energies so I would not find myself with $2.25-per-gallon gasoline on the eve of this war - because OPEC capacity is nearly tapped out.

I would have told the Palestinians that until they stop suicide bombing and get a more serious leadership, we're not dealing with them, but I would also have told the Israelis that every new or expanded settlement they built would cost them $100 million in U.S. aid.

And I would have told the Arabs: "While we'll deal with the Iraqi threat, we have no imperial designs on your countries. We are not on a crusade - but we will not sit idle if you tolerate extremists in your midst who imperil our democracy."

Had Mr. Bush done all these things it would not have changed everything with France, Russia and the Arabs - or my wife. But it would have helped generate more support to increase our staying power in Iraq and the odds that we could pull this off.

So here's how I feel: I feel as if the president is presenting us with a beautiful carved mahogany table - a big, bold, gutsy vision. But if you look underneath, you discover that this table has only one leg. His bold vision on Iraq is not supported by boldness in other areas. And so I am terribly worried that Mr. Bush has told us the right thing to do, but won't be able to do it right.

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

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