WASHINGTON - Republicans seem to think they don't have to think when it comes to Iraq. They only have to applaud the president and whack the press for not reporting more good news from Baghdad, and everything will be fine. Well, think again.
I've often pointed out the good we have done in Iraq and unabashedly hoped for more. No regrets. But some recent trends leave me worried. Unfortunately, there are few Democrats to press my worries on the administration. Most Democrats either opposed the war (a perfectly legitimate position) or supported it and are now trying to disown it.
FOR THE RECORD - In my column of Oct. 23, when I cited 900 wounded in action in Iraq, I was referring to the period since Mr. Bush declared major fighting over on May 1. I was still wrong. Pentagon data show 1,059 U.S. soldiers wounded in action from May 1 to Oct. 22.
That means the only serious opposition can come from Republicans, so they'd better get focused - because there is nothing about the Bush team's performance in Iraq up to now that justifies a free pass. If Republicans don't get serious on Iraq, they will wake up a year from now and find all their candidates facing the same question: "How did your party lose Iraq?"
If I were a Republican senator, here's what I'd tell the Bush team:
What in God's name are you doing forcing Iraqis to accept Turkish peacekeeping troops? Are you nuts? Not only will Turkish troops in Iraq alienate the Kurds, our best friends, but they will rile the Shiites and Sunnis as well.
Honor is hugely important in Iraqi society, and bringing in Turkish soldiers - Iraq's former colonizers - to order around Iraqis would be a disaster.
It's time for the Bush team to admit it made a grievous error in disbanding Iraq's army - which didn't even fight us - and declare: "We thank all the nations who offered troops, but we think the Iraqi people can and must secure their own country. So we're inviting all former Iraqi army soldiers (not Republican Guards) to report back to duty. For every two Iraqi battalions that return to duty (they can weed out their own bad apples), we will withdraw an American one. So Iraqis can liberate themselves. Our motto is Iraq for the Iraqis."
Attacks on our forces are getting more deadly, not less. Besides those killed, we've had 900 wounded or maimed. We need to take this much more seriously. We're not facing some ragtag insurrection. We're facing an enemy with a command and control center who is cleverly picking off our troops and those Iraqi leaders and foreigners cooperating with us. Either we put in the troops needed to finish the war, and project our authority, or we get the Iraqi army to do the job. But pretending that we're just "mopping up" is a dangerous illusion.
The neocons need a neo-Baath. I'm glad we banned the Baath Party, but the ban was not done right. It needed to be accompanied by a clear process for people who simply joined the Baath to secure government jobs to recant and be rehabilitated. Just tossing these people out has purged thousands of technocrats, weakened the secular middle class and left a power vacuum filled by religious groups.
Also, Iraq needs a party that can express the aspirations of Iraq's Sunni minority and give them a stake in the new state. Right now, the Sunni mainstream in Iraq isn't sure how it fits into any new order, so the worst elements are opposing us and the best are apprehensively sitting on the fence.
"There is now a struggle for power emerging within the Shiite community," says Yitzhak Nakash, a Brandeis University professor and author of The Shi'is of Iraq, "between those clerics and secular leaders who are ready to give the Americans a chance and a grass-roots leadership that wants to challenge both the Americans and the traditional Shia hierarchy. This grass-roots leadership is seeking control of mosques, followers, religious authority and income from religious taxes. Iraq is rapidly moving toward the politics of militias and arms. This trend has to be stopped."
Bottom line: We still haven't established a moderate political center in Iraq ready to openly embrace the progressive U.S. agenda for Iraq and openly defend it. That center is potentially there, but because, so far, we have failed to provide a secure enough environment, or a framework for Iraqis to have the national dialogue they need to build a better Iraq, it has not emerged. We need to fix this situation fast.
Instead of applauding without thinking, Republicans should be telling that to the president.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and appears Tuesday and Friday in The Sun.