America's hearts-and-minds problem in Iraq

December 16, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

ISTANBUL, Turkey - There was a special event last week at the Kennedy Center in Washington: The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, direct from Baghdad, played together with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, with an Iraqi and an American taking turns conducting. For one brief, shining moment, Iraqis and Americans really played the music of hope together.

If only life could imitate art.

If only the Bush team could orchestrate all the players involved in rebuilding Iraq, the way the maestro, Leonard Slatkin, conducted these combined orchestras, we might get a decent outcome in Baghdad.

But I worry, even with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Friends, we have a hearts-and-minds problem with Iraq: We've given them our hearts, and we've lost our minds. Our intentions are good in terms of what we wish for Iraq. But it is possible to do a good thing really badly. Yes, nation-building is always a messy enterprise, especially in a complex place like Iraq. As the saying goes, never watch sausage being made. But what about sausage being mismade? Now, that is really ugly.

What prompts these thoughts is a series of conversations over the past month with a variety of officials involved in Iraq policy-making - both Iraqis and Americans. Everyone agrees that the goal is some kind of democratic Iraq, but I have yet to come away from any of these conversations with a clear sense of how we are going to get from here to there, or even who exactly is the overall conductor of this diplomatic, financial and military symphony.

What I hear a lot of, though, are horror stories of Pentagon and White House red tape for anyone who wants to go to Baghdad to work in our mission there; continued guerrilla warfare between the State Department and the Pentagon and between the CIA and the Pentagon; and a shocking lack of continuity in the U.S. team in Baghdad.

I hear the U.S. civilians in Baghdad complaining that we need more troops and security if we are going to set up a legitimate Iraqi political authority, and I hear the U.S. military complaining that the key to better security is setting up a legitimate Iraqi political authority, so Iraqis will know who and what they're fighting for.

I just arrived in Istanbul and a Turkish friend, Soli Ozel, an international relations professor, remarked to me that the United States had so badly mangled the postwar honeymoon in Iraq, even Turkish conspiracy theorists were baffled: "People simply can't believe that with all your human and financial capital you didn't think about the day after."

It's understandable that the Bush team wouldn't rush to give reconstruction contracts to France, Germany and Russia, but why shove that in their faces while we're asking them to forgive Iraq's debts? Why not just tell them the more they help us, the more we'll cut them a slice of rebuilding projects?

It's fine to have a president who is a chairman of the board, above the process, setting the broad guidelines - if you have an administration that is unified within itself and with its key allies. But I fear we have a president who is setting the broad guidelines, above a squabbling bureaucracy and a divided alliance - and no one is cracking heads. You can't succeed in a place as difficult as Iraq without a workable plan to produce a broad-based government and without a unified team at home and abroad to execute it.

This is not pessimism. It's realism. Iraq is full of surprises, and some will be good. But my gut tells me we still don't have our act together. We've got the good heart thing down, but that's not enough.

What prompts this outburst? It was a picture on the front page of The New York Times of a U.S. soldier being hugged by his young kids as he left for Iraq, just before Christmas. That picture left a real lump in my throat. It prompted me to ask myself whether I could tell that soldier's kids that their government was doing everything it could to make sure their dad comes home both safe and successful. I could not - and that really bothers me.

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

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