THE BIG ONE

Thomas Friedman has an interesting if rather disjointed piece in tomorrow’s NYT. He thinks the opposition is putting all its chips into this one because a lot is at stake:

We are attracting all these opponents to Iraq because they understand this war is The Big One. They don’t believe their own propaganda. They know this is not a war for oil. They know this is a war over ideas and values and governance. They know this war is about Western powers, helped by the U.N. [Not much. -ed.], coming into the heart of their world to promote more decent, open, tolerant, women-friendly, pluralistic governments by starting with Iraq — a country that contains all the main strands of the region: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

You’d think from listening to America’s European and Arab critics that we’d upset some bucolic native culture and natural harmony in Iraq, as if the Baath Party were some colorful local tribe out of National Geographic. Alas, our opponents in Iraq, and their fellow travelers, know otherwise. They know they represent various forms of clan and gang rule, and various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism — from Talibanism to Baathism. And they know that they need external enemies to thrive and justify imposing their demented visions.

In short, America’s opponents know just what’s at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.

He then has the typical Friedman Moment, in which a single conversation with a sage individual abroad is the key that unlocks every door:

One of the most interesting conversations I had in Baghdad was with Muhammed A. al-Da’mi, a literature professor at Baghdad University and author of “Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers.” He has spent a lifetime studying the interactions between East and West. [I thought he was a lit professor? -ed.]

“Cultures can’t be closed on themselves for long without paying a price,” he explained. “But ours has been a vestigial and closed culture for many years now. The West needed us in the past and now we need it. This is the circle of history. Essentially [what you are seeing here] is a cultural collision. . . . I am optimistic insofar as I believe that my country — and I am a pan-Arab nationalist — is going to benefit from this encounter with the more advanced society, and we are going pay at the same time. . . . Your experience in Iraq is going to create two reactions: one is hypersensitivity, led by the Islamists, and the other is welcoming, led by the secularists. [But you have to understand] that what you are doing is a penetration of one culture into another. If you succeed here, Iraq could change the habits and customs of the people in the whole area.”

Well, it’s not as if the Arabs have never interacted with Western civilization. There was the whole colonial experience.

As usual, when Friedman switches to domestic politics, I disagree with him:

So, the terrorists get it. Iraqi liberals get it. The Bush team talks as if it gets it, but it doesn’t act like it. The Bush team tells us, rightly, that this nation-building project is the equivalent of Germany in 1945, and yet, so far, it has approached the postwar in Iraq as if it’s Grenada in 1982.

Oh, c’mon. There is, after all, a rather sizable contingent of U.S. forces there and a civil administration.

We may fail, but not because we have attracted terrorists who understand what’s at stake in Iraq. We may fail because of the utter incompetence with which the Pentagon leadership has handled the postwar. (We don’t even have enough translators there, let alone M.P.’s, and the media network we’ve set up there to talk to Iraqis is so bad we’d be better off buying ads on Al Jazeera.) We may fail because the Bush team thinks it can fight The Big One in the Middle East — while cutting taxes at home, shrinking the U.S. Army, changing the tax code to encourage Americans to buy gas-guzzling cars that make us more dependent on Mideast oil and by gratuitously alienating allies.

Most of this just isn’t factually correct. The Army isn’t shrinking. If the tax cuts are aimed at encouraging people to buy SUV’s, this is the first I’ve heard of it. And I’m not sure which allies we’ve alienated, other than maybe the Canadians. The French haven’t been allies in my lifetime. The Shroeder government fired the first shots in the current estrangement.

We don’t have enough MPs and translators because, well, we don’t have enough MPs and translators. This is a problem that should have been dealt with a decade ago. Now, granted, the Bush team hasn’t done anything about it, either, but it’s silly to assign all the blame to them.

We may fail because to win The Big One, we need an American public, and allies, ready to pay any price and bear any burden, but we have a president unable or unwilling to summon either.

This is rather nonsensical. This is a combination of Ross Perot’s 1992 platform (we should enact a tax increase every time there’s a war) and Doris Kearns Goodwin-type nostalgia for the good old days that never were. The Iraq War is placing a strain on our military. It’s impact on the gargantuan U.S. economy is miniscule. A World War II-style mass mobilization is unnecessary and would be counterproductive.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. REDUX says:

    “He then has the typical Friedman Moment, in which a single conversation with a sage individual abroad is the key that unlocks every door.”

    Hahahaha. That’s classic.

    What I love, is that the sage individual, as you point out, is a literature professor, who is a pan-Arab nationalist!

    If there ever was a bankrupt ideology, I’m afraid that it is pan-Arabism. Arab Nationalism as a movement was neither Arab nor nationalist. Allow me, if you will, to share my own “Friedman moment”. When I studied at the American University in Cairo, I used to love to bait my fellow political science majors by asking them if Arab Nationalism was a real thing. To which they would all jump up and exclaim, “Yes!”

    “So what makes an Arab”, I would ask.

    “Arabs are Arabs.” Then, “All the countries in the Arab League are made of Arabs.”

    “So Kurds are Arabs?”

    “Uh, no–“, one would start, only to be interrupted by another. “–he’s wrong, they’re Arabs!” And still another. “No they’re not! They don’t even look Arab.” Then they would regroup and say somthing like this, “Why, Arabs are from those countries that speak Arabic.”

    To muddy the water a little more, I would ask “What about the Maghrebis (berbers)?”

    “Now, they’re Arabs. After all, they’re in the Arab League.”

    “But they don’t speak Arabic, they speak Maghrebi.”

    “That’s not important.” The know-it-all who typed her notes would say, “It’s all the countries that were invaded by the Arabs during the Caliphates.”

    “So Spaniards are Arabs?”

    (15 minutes later)

    They: “You just don’t understand. You’re not an Arab. You never heard Nasser.”

    Me: “Neither did you. You’re my age!”

    They couldn’t even agree on what Arab Nationalism meant, and yet they all professed it. It was as nonsensical as Freidman’s views on domestic politics.

    I would venture to say that a few too many “locks have been opened” for Mr. Freidman by sage Arabs like Prof. al-Da’mi, and that’s why his policy prescriptions are wedded to nostalgic, statist, “mobilize the people” beliefs that are sooo Twentieth Century.

  2. John Lemon says:

    We can’t say that the Bush Admin or Pentagon is not doing anything about translators. They may well be trying, but it probably isn’t easy generating these people quickly. There are not alot of places that teach Arabic and not many college kids take these courses. You have the Monterrey Institute (or whatever it is called, I forget), but that can only supply so many. And of those who speak Arabic out there how many will rush to be translators in a war zone?

    But then again, I’m with Friedman in my amazement that we haven’t been able to put together a working government in a matter of months. It just seems soooo easy to me. It just seems way too early to declare all of this either a failure or a success.

  3. James Joyner says:

    REDUX: Yep. I enjoy reading Friedman but he does have a rather Pollyannaish hope for the world.

    JL: True. So true. We could have started growing more MPs, Civil Affairs, and PsyOps folks, certainly. I’d think the way to get more Arab translators for duty in Iraq would be to hire locals who speak English.

  4. Rick DeMent says:

    We can’t say that the Bush Admin or Pentagon is not doing anything about translators.

    The idea that the administration decided to whip up a holy war without even this basic necessity in place is, in my mind, a tragic example of simply not having much more then a superficial understanding of the enemy who we have decided to engage. This war had the luxury of taking place at ” time and place of our choosing”, yet we decided to go in without translators without a clear understanding of the issues that motivates these people to give their lives for their God, and without much of a plan for the postwar reconstruction apparently.

    BTW Bush proposed a provision in the tax code (which I believe passed) that will allow you to write off up to 75,000 for any vehicle over 6,000 lbs. of gross weight, it was originally proposed to give farmers a break on farm equipment, but there is nothing in the provision that says a business owner needs to use the vehicle for hauling anything, so a business owner looking for a vehicle can choose between a fuel efficient car and pay taxes or a hummer and get a huge write off. This is actually pretty sad given that we will be fighting in the Middle East from now until our grandkids are old to secure the resources we need to keep or economy afloat.

  5. Paul says:

    BTW Bush proposed a provision in the tax code (which I believe passed) that will allow you to write off up to 75,000 for any vehicle over 6,000 lbs. of gross weight, it was originally proposed to give farmers a break on farm equipment, but there is nothing in the provision that says a business owner needs to use the vehicle for hauling anything, so a business owner looking for a vehicle can choose between a fuel efficient car and pay taxes or a hummer and get a huge write off.

    I SOOOO tire of this debate. At least you *mostly* frame it properly. Most of the dems make it out to be a special tax cut just for Hummers.

    Do me (and yourself) a favor. The next time you drive thru the city, look at all the commercial vehicles this size and smaller. You will see hundreds of plumbers, electricians etc who do not quilify because the tax bill RAISED the poundage limit.

    2 years ago a full sized van or a Suburban qualified. Now they do not. The Dems are whining about this and the limit was RAISED!!! It is totally unfair that there are MILLIONS of business people that can not write off thier legitimate business vehicles because of this stupid law.

    If a florist delivers flowers in a VW beetle does that make it less of a business???

    There is so much disinformation on this it is unreal. This is a typical example of spin overtaking facts.

    I’m ready to mail it to snopes.

    Paul