Saturday, June 30, 2007

THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN: Dog Paddling in the Tigris


It’s too early to pronounce the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq a failure. It’s not too early to say, though, that there’s no sign that it’s succeeding — that it’s making Iraqi politics or security better in any appreciable, self-sustaining way. At best, the surge is keeping Iraq from descending into full-scale civil war. At best we are dog paddling in the Tigris. Which means at least we should start to think about what happens if we have to get out of the water.

We have to start by taking stock — honestly — about where we are. President Bush talks about Iraq as a country where the vast majority of the people are longing to live with each other in peace, harmony and freedom, and where only a tiny minority of terrorists and die-hard Baathists are standing in the way.

I wish. If that were really the case, how could it be that after four years, hundreds of billions of dollars, tens of thousands of U.S. troops and thousands of casualties, we and our Iraqi allies have not been able to defeat this tiny minority? It doesn’t add up. No minority could be that powerful.

The truth is we have a majorities problem in Iraq, not just a minority problem. For too many Iraqi leaders and too many of their followers, America’s vision of Iraq — a unified, pluralistic, democratizing, free-market — is actually their second choice, at best.

The first choice for many Shiites is a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated religious Iraq, where Sunnis have little say and little power. The first choice for many Sunnis is a return to the good old days of Sunni minority rule over the Shiite majority. The first choice for many Kurds is an independent, democratic Kurdistan. In too many cases, the violence that is bedeviling Iraq today — while carried out by a minority of people — reflects the broad aspirations or fears of the respective majorities.

In short, our first-choice soldiers are dying for Iraqis’ second choice. That is wrong, terribly wrong. It has to stop.

What to do? Most of the options being floated by Democrats and Republicans talk about abandoning the whole idea of trying to implant democracy in Iraq and focusing instead on America’s core “national interests.” Those are described as getting as many of our troops out of Iraq as possible, while preventing the inevitable Iraqi civil war — which would follow any U.S. withdrawal — from spreading around the region. Such proposals are only half right.

Some things are true even if George Bush believes them. And one thing that remains true (maybe the only thing) about Mr. Bush’s strategy toward Iraq is that it is still in our national interest to try to create a model of decent, progressive, pluralistic politics in the heart of the Arab world.

You need to only look at Gaza and Lebanon, not to mention Baghdad, to see how badly this region needs a different model of governance. But I just said earlier that we have a majorities problem in Iraq. So what to do? Build on the minority.

“Go for the Kurdish option,” says Hazem Saghiyeh, the noted columnist for the London Arabic daily Al Hayat. “You can’t build a democratic example in all of Iraq today, but you can build it in Kurdistan. That is where you should go.”

He’s right. If the surge fails to pave the way for a Sunni-Shiite power-sharing agreement in Iraq, then we have to remove our troops from their areas and relocate them to the border to contain their civil war. But we should also talk to the Kurds about setting up a base in Kurdistan and buttressing its development. Kurdistan is not Switzerland (still too much corruption). But it does have the cultural and institutional foundations — including an active Parliament, vibrant newspapers, open universities and free markets — for a decent democratizing example in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. Many Iraqis have already fled to Kurdistan to find safety or even vacation in its thriving hotels. A U.S. base in Kurdistan would protect it from invasion by Turkey, and assure Turkey that an autonomous Kurdistan will not be a problem for it.

Nothing could justify the staggering cost of the Iraq war anymore, but if we could get one decent example implanted in the neighborhood, even a small one, at least it wouldn’t be a total loss. The example set by little, progressive, modernizing, globalizing Dubai has had a big impact on other countries in the Gulf. A thriving, progressive Kurdistan could do the same. If such an example doesn’t make Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites come to their senses, it will at least be a mirror that shows them every day how utterly wasteful, senseless and self-destructive their civil war is.

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