tom friedman faces the facts

The only opinion on Iraq that matters is . . . yours

By Thomas L. Friedman  

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month.

I, alas, am not interested in their opinions.

It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you – the person reading this column. You know more than you think.

You see, I have a simple view about both Arab-Israeli peace-making and Iraqi surge-making, and it goes like this: Any Arab-Israeli peace overture that requires a Middle East expert to explain to you is not worth considering. It’s going nowhere.

Either a peace overture is so obvious and grabs you in the gut – Anwar Sadat’s trip to Israel – or it’s going nowhere. That is why the Saudi-Arab League peace overture is going nowhere. No emotional content. It was basically faxed to the Israeli people, and people don’t give up land for peace in a deal that comes over the fax.

Ditto with Iraqi surges. If it takes a Middle East expert to explain to you why it is working, it’s not working. To be sure, it is good news if the number of Iraqis found dead in Baghdad each night is diminishing. Indeed, it is good news if casualties are down everywhere that U.S. troops have made their presence felt. But all that tells me is something that was obvious from the start of the war, which Donald Rumsfeld ignored: Where you put in of U.S. troops you get security, and where you don’t you get insecurity.

There’s only one thing at this stage that would truly impress me, and it is this: proof that there is an Iraq, proof that there is a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq and who are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq – without U.S. troops.

Because if that is not the case, even if U.S. troops create more pockets of security via the surge, they will have no one to hand these pockets to who can maintain them without us. In other words, the only people who can prove that the surge is working are the Iraqis, and the way they prove that is by showing that violence is down in areas where there are no U.S. troops or where U.S. troops have come and gone.

Because many Americans no longer believe anything President Bush says about Iraq, he has outsourced the assessment of the surge to the firm of Petraeus & Crocker. But this puts them in an impossible position. I admire their efforts, and those of their soldiers, to try to salvage something decent in Iraq, especially when you see who we are losing to – Sunni suicide jihadists and Shiite militants, who murder fellow Muslims by the dozen and whose retrograde visions offer Iraqis only a future of tears. But we could never defeat them on our own. It takes a village, and right now too many of the Iraqi villagers won’t work together.

….My answer: If I saw something with my own eyes that I hadn’t seen before – Iraq’s Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders stepping forward, declaring their willingness to work out their differences by a set deadline and publicly asking us to stay until they do. That’s the only thing worth giving more time to develop.

But it may just be too late. Had the surge happened in 2003, when it should have, it might have prevented the kindling of all of Iraq’s sectarian passions. But now that those fires have been set, trying to unify Iraq feels like doing carpentry on a burning house.

I’ve been thinking about Iraq’s multi-religious soccer team, which just won the Asian Cup. The team was assembled from Iraqis who play for other pro teams outside Iraq. In fact, it was reported that the Iraqi soccer team hadn’t played a home game in 17 years because of violence or U.N. sanctions. In short, it’s a real team with a virtual country. That’s what I fear the surge is trying to protect: a unified Iraq that exists only in the imagination and on foreign soccer fields.

Only Iraqis living in Iraq can prove otherwise. So far, I don’t see it.

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