Capture brings us to moment of truth in Iraq

December 19, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Of all the fascinating reactions to Saddam Hussein's capture, the one that intrigues me most is the French decision to suddenly offer some debt forgiveness for Iraq. Why now? I believe it's an 11th-hour attempt by the French government to scramble onto the right side of history.

I believe the French president, Jacques Chirac, knows something in his heart: In the run-up to the Iraq war, President Bush and Britain's Tony Blair stretched the truth about Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction - but they were not alone. Mr. Chirac also stretched the truth about his willingness to join a U.N.-led coalition against Iraq if Mr. Hussein were given more time and still didn't comply with U.N. weapons inspections.

I don't believe Mr. Chirac ever intended to go to war against Mr. Hussein, under any circumstances. So history will record that all three of these leaders were probably stretching the truth - but with one big difference: Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair were stretching the truth in order to risk their own political careers to get rid of a really terrible dictator; Mr. Chirac was stretching the truth to advance his own political career by protecting a really terrible dictator.

Something tells me that the picture of Mr. Hussein looking like some crazed werewolf may have shocked even Mr. Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin: Yes, boys, this is the creep you were protecting. History will also record that while the United States and Britain chose to be Mr. Hussein's prosecutors, France chose to be his defense lawyers.

So, no, it doesn't surprise me that the French are now offering conscience money in the form of Iraqi debt relief. Something tells me Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin were just assuming Iraq would end in failure, but with Mr. Hussein's capture they've decided they'd better put a few chips on success.

But we and the Iraqis are also going to have to step up more ourselves - otherwise the French could still have the last laugh. No question, the capture of Mr. Hussein merits celebration in and of itself, not only because this terrible man will be brought to justice, but also because it really does improve the chances for a decent outcome in Iraq. But while Mr. Hussein's removal is necessary for that decent outcome, it is not sufficient.

We have entered a moment of truth in Iraq. With Mr. Hussein now gone, there are no more excuses for the political drift there. We are now going to get the answer to the big question I had before the war: Is Iraq the way it is because Mr. Hussein was the way he was? Or was Mr. Hussein the way he was because Iraq is the way it is - ungovernable except by an iron fist?

We have to give Iraqis every chance to prove it is the first, not the second. For starters, I hope we don't hear any more chants from Iraqis of "Death to Saddam." He's now as good as dead. Now we have to hear how they want to live and whom they want to live with.

The Godfather is dead. But what will be his legacy? Is there a good Iraqi national family that can and wants to live together, or will there just be more little godfathers competing with one another? From my own visits, I think the good family scenario for Iraq is very possible, if we can provide security - but only Iraqis can tell us for sure by how they behave.

The way to determine whether Iraqis are willing to form the good family is how they use and understand their newfound freedom. The reason Iraqi politics has not jelled up to now is not only because of Mr. Hussein's lingering shadow. It is because each of the major blocs - the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites - has been pushing maximalist demands for what it thinks is its rightful place in shaping and running a new Iraq. The Iraqi ship of state has broken up on these rocks many times before.

By risking their own political careers, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have, indeed, given Iraqis the gift of freedom. But it is not the freedom to simply shout about what they oppose. That is anarchy. Freedom is about limits, compromise and accepting responsibility. Freedom is the opportunity to assert your interests and the obligation to hear and compromise with the interests of others.

How well Iraqis absorb that kind of freedom will determine whether the capture of Mr. Hussein is the high point of this drama - and it's all downhill from here - or just a necessary first chapter in the most revolutionary democracy-building project ever undertaken in the Arab world.

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

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