Article: The Big Question

From the March 3 edition of the New York Times:

The Big Question
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Since the start of the Iraq war, it’s been clear that “victory” rested on the answer to one Big Question: Was Iraq the way Iraq was because Saddam was the way Saddam was, or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraq was the way Iraq was — a country congenitally divided among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that can be held together only by an iron fist.

Unfortunately, to answer this big question — even Iraqis didn’t know — the U.S. had to provide a minimum degree of security for all Iraqis, so people could feel relaxed enough to think beyond their most narrow tribal or religious identities. We didn’t do that, because of President Bush’s decision to approach the Iraq invasion with the Rumsfeld Doctrine, which calls for just enough troops to fail, rather than the proven Powell Doctrine, which calls for overwhelming force to win.


What happened in the absence of an overwhelming U.S. force was the looting of government buildings and ammo dumps, open borders for infiltrators, and then widespread insecurity, which naturally prompted Iraqis to fall back on tribal loyalties and militias, rather than trusting the Iraqi Army or the police. People are very good at figuring out who will protect them in a crisis, and too many Iraqis opted for local militias.

Yes, we are now better at training an Iraqi Army and have held national elections. But the failure to provide security after the invasion means we are trying to build these national institutions in competition with the insurgents, Qaeda terrorists, Shiite death squads and sectarian Iraqi militias that sprouted in the security vacuum.

One thing that covering the Lebanese civil war taught me was this: once sectarian militias take root, they develop their own interests and are very hard to uproot. “Militias are the infrastructure of civil war, and the basis of warlordism,” the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, told The Washington Post.

This did not have to be. The Bush team repeatedly declared that it had enough troops in Iraq and that no one on the ground was asking for more. Totally untrue. As Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq, reveals in his new book, “My Year in Iraq,” he repeatedly asked for more troops, but was ignored.

Mr. Bremer confesses in his book: “Coalition forces were spread too thin on the ground. During my morning intelligence briefings, I would sometimes picture an understrength fire crew racing from one blaze to another.” He writes that he told Condoleezza Rice in 2003, “The coalition’s got about half the number of soldiers we need here, and we run a real risk of having this thing go south on us.”

Mr. Bremer describes this in 2004: “On May 18, I gave Rice a heads-up that I intended to send Secretary Rumsfeld a very private message suggesting that the coalition needed more troops. … That afternoon I sent my message. … I noted that the deterioration of the security situation since April had made it clear, to me at least, that we were trying to cover too many fronts with too few resources.” But, Mr. Bremer writes of Mr. Rumsfeld, “I did not hear back from him.”

Because the U.S. never deployed enough troops, America alone cannot establish order in Iraq today. We don’t have a way to do that. And Iraq’s Army, no matter how well trained, will never have enough will — without a broad political consensus. So we’re down to the last hope, and it’s a mighty thin reed. The only people who can produce a decent outcome now are Iraq’s new leaders — by coming together, burying their hatchets, forging a real national unity government and getting their followers to follow.

This is the season of decision. We have an Iraqi government elected on the basis of an Iraqi-written constitution. Either the elected Iraqi leaders will heroically come together and forge a national unity government — and save Iraq — or they will divide Iraq. Our job was to help them decide in a reasonably secure environment, not in a shooting gallery. We failed in that task, but they will have to decide nevertheless.

It is Iraqis who will now tell Americans whether they should stay or go. A majority of Americans, in a gut way, always understood the value of trying to produce a democratizing government in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. That is why there has been no big antiwar movement. Americans should, and will, stick with Iraq if they sense that Iraqis are on a pathway to building a decent, stable government. But Americans will not, and should not, baby-sit an Iraqi civil war. The minute they sense that’s what’s happening, you will see the bottom fall out of U.S. public support for this war.

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