'Groundhog Day' in Iraq

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

November 11, 2004

I got a brief glimpse of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's news conference on Monday, as the battle for Falluja began. I couldn't help but rub my eyes for a moment and wonder aloud whether I had been transported back in time to some 20 months ago, when the war for Iraq had just started. Watching CNN, I saw the same Rummy joking with the Pentagon press corps, the same scratchy reports from the front by "embedded reporters,'' the same footage of U.S. generals who briefed the soldiers preparing for battle about how they were liberating Iraq.

There was only one difference that no one seemed to want to mention. It wasn't 20 months ago. It was now. And Iraq has still not been fully liberated. In fact, as the fight for Falluja shows, it hasn't even been fully occupied.

Taking in this scene I had very mixed feelings: a fervent hope that victory in Falluja will start to tip Iraq in the right direction, and utter scorn at the fact that we are now, once again, fighting a full-scale war in central Iraq, without an ounce of self-reflection by an administration that long ago declared "mission accomplished.'' But don't worry. Rummy has it all under control. He hasn't made any mistakes. Everything is going as planned. The plan was always to fight running street battles in Falluja 20 months after Saddam's fall.

So lay off. Shut up. Watch Fox. Wave a flag. Visit a red state. Don't ask how we got into this fix. Shut up. Lay off. Watch Fox. ...

Alas, I'm part of that dwindling minority who believe that a decent outcome in Iraq is both hugely important and still possible. But the "déjà vu all over again" battle for Falluja only reminds me that I still have the same questions I had before the Iraq war started. Free advice: until you have answers to the following six questions, don't believe any happy talk coming from the Bush team on Iraq.

Question 1 Have we really finished the war in Iraq? And by that I mean, is it safe for Iraqis and reconstruction workers to drive even from the Baghdad airport into town, and for Iraqi politicians to hold campaign rallies and have a national dialogue about their country's future?

Question 2 Do we have enough soldiers in Iraq to really provide a minimum level of security? Up to now President Bush has applied what I call the Rumsfeld Doctrine in Iraq: just enough troops to protect ourselves, but not Iraqis, and just enough troops to be blamed for everything that goes wrong in Iraq, but not enough to make things go right.

Ah, Friedman, what do you know about troop levels? Actually, not much. Never shot a gun. But I'm not a chef either, and I know a good meal when I eat one. I know chaos when I see it, and my guess is that we are still at least two divisions short in Iraq.

Question 3 Can Iraqis agree on constitutional power-sharing? Is there a political entity called Iraq? Or is there just a bunch of disparate tribes and ethnic and religious communities? Is Iraq the way Iraq is because Saddam was the way Saddam was, or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraqis are the way they are - congenitally divided? We still don't know the answer to this fundamental question because there has not been enough security for Iraqis to have a real horizontal dialogue.

Question 4 If Iraqis are able to make the leap from the despotism of Saddam Hussein to free elections and representative government, can we live with whomever they elect - which will be mostly politicians from Islamist parties? I take a very expansive view of this since it took Europe several hundred years to work out the culture, habits and institutions of constitutional politics. What you are seeing in Iraq today are the necessary first steps. If Iraqis elect Islamist politicians, so be it. But is our president ready for that group shot?

Question 5 Can we make a serious effort to achieve a psychological breakthrough with Iraqis and the wider Arab world? U.S. diplomacy in this regard has been pathetic. "It is sad to say this, but after 18 months the U.S. still hasn't convinced Iraqis that it means well,'' said Yitzhak Nakash, the Brandeis University expert on Iraq. "We have never been able to persuade Iraqis that we aren't there for the oil. There still isn't a basis for mutual trust.''

Question 6 Can the Bush team mend fences with Iran, and forge an understanding with Saudi Arabia and Syria to control the flow of Sunni militants into Iraq, so the situation there can be stabilized and the jihadists killed in Falluja are not replaced by a new bunch?

This time, let no one claim victory, or defeat, in Iraq until we have the answers to these six questions.