The long, tough journey to Bush St. in Baghdad

April 27, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- I was at a dinner the other night and was introduced to a lovely Lebanese woman. We started reminiscing about the good old days in Lebanon and I asked her where she lived in Beirut. She said it was in a building off "Rue John Kennedy."

I stopped her immediately. "Rue John Kennedy?" I said, rolling over the words in my mind. "I forgot there was a time when they actually named streets in the Arab world for an American president."

Will there ever be a street in Baghdad named after George W. Bush or any U.S. president? The fact that even asking the question today seems absurd tells you how far things have deteriorated.

Indeed, the question I am asking myself is this: Has America become so radioactive in the Arab-Muslim world that we glow in the dark -- and therefore it is dangerous for anyone to walk the streets with us, let alone name one after a U.S. president? Has America become so radioactive that Iraqi democracy and a prolonged American presence in Iraq have become a contradiction, not a necessity?

Consider what happened in Basra on Wednesday: Some residents spontaneously stoned British troops coming to rescue Iraqi schoolgirls who were caught up in the suicide bombings of Basra police stations. These were our best friends in Iraq -- the Shiites -- stoning the British while they were trying to rescue Iraqi children attacked by Islamist terrorists.

That's what we're now up against. It is the wrath of a local population that has begun to view its liberators as worse than occupiers -- because they can't even provide what tyranny does, i.e. control and security, which are the necessary foundations for economic or political development.

That people would stone their would-be rescuers is also a reminder of how broken, traumatized and messed up Iraqi society is by decades of Saddam Hussein's rule, and of how it is caught up in some of the same anti-Western conspiracy theories that you can find on any Arab street today.

But here's what else I'm sure of: If today you asked the same Iraqis who threw stones whether they would like the Americans or British to leave, or regret that they came, they would tell you no. They still really want us to succeed. But the only chance we have of doing that is if we look at our situation, and the real nature of Iraq, right in the eye -- something that the Bush Pentagon has been criminally negligent in doing. (This is the real intelligence failure in Iraq -- a failure of common sense.)

We are now in the middle of a low-grade civil war in Iraq for who will control the place after we leave. That's the bad news.

Here's the good news: I doubt we will be in Iraq a year from now -- certainly not in large numbers. One of three things is likely to happen:

First, the security and economic situations could continue to spiral downward, creating a Mogadishu-like situation in which we will have to fight our way out.

Second, we might manage, with the help of the United Nations, to organize a reasonably legitimate Iraqi caretaker government to which we can hand "limited" sovereignty June 30. But that won't stop our opponents. They will go on attacking U.S. forces to provoke a U.S. retaliation that will embarrass the caretaker government, make its leaders look like our stooges and pressure it to throw the United States out.

Third, the least-bad scenario is that we will be able to stick it out and, with the United Nations, conduct a decent election by the end of the year that brings a legitimate Shiite-led Iraqi government to power. I doubt that such a government is going to want to have U.S. troops protecting it for very long, and it will either invite us to leave gradually or insist that we put our forces under a U.N. umbrella.

To even get to this stage, though, the Bush team can't make another mistake in Iraq and needs to remedy all those it has made.

A good start was made Friday when the administration effectively conceded its error in disbanding the Iraqi army and firing too many low-level former Baathists, and began reaching out to them. One hopes this is part of a wider understanding that the first freely elected Iraqi government will be, at best, fragile, insecure and therefore highly nationalistic.

You don't get from Hussein to Jefferson without going through a little Khomeini and Nasser -- not in this neighborhood -- and we're going to have to let Iraqis find their own path through this maze.

We have to be in this for the long haul -- for that moment down the road, when, after we get out of their faces and they work through their issues, they invite us back. Only then might they want to name a street after an American president.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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