May 18th, 2003, 10:58 PM
NYTimes Op/Ed: Bored With Baghdad — Already
Bored With Baghdad — Already
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Last Wednesday two top U.S. generals in Iraq held a news conference in Baghdad's half-wrecked convention center. The subject was deteriorating security and the two officers, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan and Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, were pummeled by the press about why they weren't doing more to make Baghdad safer. It was 102 degrees, and in the middle of the session all the lights went out. The two generals looked like they were enjoying this encounter about as much as a root canal. At one point General Blount, explaining why his men didn't just shoot looters, said: "They were not threatening soldiers. They were just stealing something."
Frankly, my heart went out to the generals, both of whom distinguished themselves in this war. First, they were stuck explaining U.S. policy in Baghdad, because Jay Garner's hapless nation-building team rarely spoke to anyone, and his replacement, L. Paul Bremer, had just arrived.
But the generals were also miscast because they and their men are trained to kill people, not chase looters. Neither they nor their men want to be serving as the police, and they were not prepared to do that. They came to Baghdad with 1,800 military police officers. Saddam Hussein used 20,000 police officers to control this city of five million.
But when Saddam vanished, so did his police and government. This created a power vacuum that we were not ready to fill. This unleashed the looting, which Donald Rumsfeld blithely dismissed with his infamous line: "Freedom is untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." And so they did. Many pieces of Iraq's economic and governmental infrastructure — which the U.S. Air Force carefully spared with its smart bombs — were destroyed from the ground up by dumb looters or saboteurs, while we watched. Chaos is untidy. Freedom requires limits.
Drive around Basra and see what looters have done to just one institution: the 12,000-student Basra University. It looks like a tornado hit it. Looters have made off with all the desks and chairs, ransacked the library, and were last seen by my colleague Marc Santora ripping out window frames and digging up cables. Check out some of the factories around Baghdad, or many ministries, power plants, oil refineries, police stations, water systems. All have been hobbled by looting — which is why power is in short supply, phones don't work, and gas lines are a mile long.
"There are no police in my neighborhood, no judge — I can kill you right now and no one will say a thing," Hasanian Muallah, an engineer, said to me. "We're very happy to get rid of Saddam, but we're depressed by the situation on the street. People don't care who is going to be vice president. They just want a government."
I am sure things will improve. But after traveling around central Iraq, here's what worries me: The buildup to this war was so exhausting, the coverage of the dash to Baghdad so telegenic, and the climax of the toppling of Saddam's statue so dramatic, that everyone who went through it seems to prefer that the story just end there. The U.S. networks changed the subject after the fall of Baghdad as fast as you can say "Laci Peterson," and President Bush did the same as fast as you can say "tax cuts."
They are not only underestimating how hard nation building will be with this brutalized people, but how much the looting and power vacuum have put us into an even deeper hole. We need an emergency airlift of military police officers, a mobile telephone system so people can communicate, and a TV station. And we need, as one U.S. general said to me, to "take that $600 million of Saddam's money we found behind that wall, go up in a helicopter and spread it from one end of the country to the other." We have to get the economy going.
Iraqis are an exhausted people. Most seem ready to give us a chance, and we do have a shot at making this a decent place — but not with nation building lite. That approach is coming unstuck in Afghanistan and it will never work in Iraq. We've wasted an important month. We must get our act together and our energy up. Why doesn't Mr. Rumsfeld brief reporters every day about rebuilding Iraq, the way he did about destroying Saddam?
America is in an imperial role here, now. Our security and standing in the world ride on our getting Iraq right. If the Bush team has something more important to do, I'd like to know about it. Iraq can still go wrong for a hundred Iraqi reasons, but let's make sure it's not because America got bored, tired or distracted.