The Last Mile

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

November 28, 2004

Here's this week's news quiz. It's just one question, but it's a big one: Who's in charge of U.S. policy in Iraq? No, seriously, give yourself a simple test. Just look in a mirror and mouth these words: "Overall coordinator and strategist of U.S. policy in Iraq today," and tell me whose picture comes into your head.

George Bush? Donald Rumsfeld? Porter Goss? Dick Cheney? Condi Rice? Steve Hadley? Colin Powell? General Casey? Karl Rove? Bono? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Tommy Franks? David Stern? (He should be in charge.)

I confess that I cover this story and it has never been clear to me who was our chief strategist for Iraq - who was really orchestrating the intelligence and public affairs, with the politics, diplomacy and military operations, around a coherent plan that was being communicated to Iraqis and the world. Indeed, I have never understood how an administration that wanted a war so badly and will be judged on it by history so profoundly, could manage it so sloppily. Right now we need an "intelligent czar" for Iraq much more than we need an "intelligence czar" for America.

Consider one small example. Last week, The Times's defense correspondent, Thom Shanker, wrote about a study conducted by the Defense Science Board, which found that nearly two years into the war in Iraq, America's institutions charged with "strategic communications" - about what we are doing in the world and why - are broken. The study found that "the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam."

No kidding. We are losing a public relations war in the Muslim world to people sawing the heads off other Muslims. But this is only one dimension of a larger problem, which cannot be allowed to continue.

Here's why: The Bush team early on compared the fall of Saddam's statue in that Baghdad square with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wrong. The Berlin Wall was a completely artificial barrier that had no organic connection to the society it was repressing. Once that wall was removed, the free-market, civil society and democratic traditions that were already there in places like East Germany, Poland and Hungary could resurface. All we had to do was get out of the way.

In Iraq, and in Palestine, when Saddam and Yasir Arafat toppled over like walls, their disappearances did not leave behind civil societies yearning to be free, united and democratic. Saddam and Arafat were products of their societies more than we want to admit - not artificial impositions.

In the long run their departures are huge opportunities. But in the short run they have left behind two pots that are boiling over - two highly tribalized societies, full of pent-up problems, with few civil society institutions or consensus leaders. They left behind two huge rebuilding challenges. The Bush team helped remove the lids off both these pots. But the first rule of cooking and warfare is: Never take the lid off a boiling pot unless you also have a strategy for turning down the heat. President Bush had a lid-removing strategy only. He's been improvising on the heat part ever since.

Improv time is over. This is crunch time. Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months. But it won't be won with high rhetoric. It will be won on the ground in a war over the last mile.

Winning in Iraq is now about who has the smarts, the focus, the gumption, the strategy, the coordination skills and the follow-through to get control of the last mile. Can we pull off a decent election in Iraq, with some Sunni participation, and produce a reasonably legitimate government there, for which the police and army will fight, or will the insurgents thwart that? Can we connect the electricity and sewers and get more jobs going, so more Iraqis are invested in peace, or will the insurgents thwart that? Can we make sure that the 570-plus election polling places will be secure from suicide bombers, or will the insurgents thwart that? Can we finally build an effective U.S. information campaign in Iraq and the Arab world, or will we cede the field to Al Jazeera instead? Can we neutralize meddling by the Iranians and Syrians in the Iraqi elections, or will they outfox us?

Wars are fought for political ends. Soldiers can only do so much. And the last mile in every war is about claiming the political fruits. The bad guys in Iraq can lose every mile on every road, but if they beat America on the last mile - because they are able to intimidate better than America is able to coordinate, protect, inform, invest and motivate - they will win and America will lose.