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Iraq in limbo

It's hard to get a sense of what's really going on in Iraq, and it feels foolish to try and say anything about it. But the news gives a fairly consistent impression at least that Iraq is in a sort of limbo — a pre-interim before even the interim government stage — and I think there's something to say about that. Each day of limbo is a day of lost opportunity for the United States to make a good early (if not first) impression; and first impressions count. It feels like we're losing the battle for the future of Iraq, already.

There's no true first impression in this case, of course; it's not like we're new on the scene. The United States encouraged Saddam's initial rise to power, supported him against Iran, stood by as he crushed the Shiite resistance after the first Gulf War, and most recently upheld years of economic sanctions on Iraq — we're carrying some heavy baggage coming into this. And the event that has precipitated this reconstruction was of course our bombardment and invasion, an awesome display, but an inevitably damaging one as well.

So the promise of reconstruction — that this time, things will be different — is significant. If we really do help the Iraqi people, it will be a first. And in that sense, there is an opportunity for a first impression — a chance to say, yes, it really is different this time.

The way you say that is simple; it's the same in any relationship. You tell a person, or a people, you care about them by putting their immediate interests before your own. You are willing to make compromises or sacrifices where your short-term interests diverge, because you know your long-term interests do not — and you want the other party to know it, so that they will be willing to do the same.

Which is why, with each day of continued limbo, I feel like we lose a little hope for the future stability of Iraq. So far, we've given no real indication things really are different this time; we haven't sacrificed anything, done anything we wouldn't have done for our own purposes. Maybe (maybe) there wasn't anything that could have been done to stop the looting in Baghdad more quickly, for instance, but maybe in the long run it would have been worth risking exposing our troops to protect more than just the oil ministry. For instance.

And if our intentions truly are different this time, it's up to us to find a way to show it — if the opportunity doesn't already exist, you have to create it. Even if it starts just with symbolic gestures, we need to find some way to demonstrate that we are indeed invested in the future of the Iraqi people, and to make sure the message gets across. Iraqis have decades of cause for resentment; if they don't see that we're invested in their future, they'll move increasingly against us.

Which is why early impressions matter. People will take a certain amount of time to reassess, to decide what they think — but once they do, it gets much harder to change their mind. (You can't reason with a cynic.) Who knows how long we have to convince the people of Iraq to trust us — weeks? Months? Certainly not forever. Each day Baghdad struggles with insufficient power and fresh water, each day Iraqis die in ammunitions explosions or in the hospital, we probably lose some people. Lose enough, and we'll lose the support of the country at large.

So each day of this pre-interim interim, this power-vacuum limbo with its utter absence of even small victories, feels like a loss to me. Who knows how much it will cost us, and Iraq, if anti-American resentment grows unchecked. Maybe we can rule by might alone, but how is it in our interests to even find out? We have the resources to see Iraq through this uncertainty; given the $100 billion-plus we'll spend there, couldn't we afford to set up a credible police force, for instance? Or even just put a few liaison officers on the ground — some people Baghdadis and others could take their complaints to, to make it feel like at least we're listening? Even if we really are doing everything we can to restore power and water and deliver aid, it would cost us practically nothing, in the long run, to address two remaining chief concerns, lack of security and the transparent disregard of the American forces. And who knows what else we could do, if we invested some effort in it. (I'm no expert; and maybe of course my specific ideas here are off-base; either way, though, making an effort to help the Iraqis will make a point, and not making an effort will make a point, as well.)

A Shiite leader told the Washington Post, after participating in yesterday's meeting in which Iraqi representatives decided to reconvene in a month to set up an interim administration for Iraq, "Four weeks is a very long time." It is: It's too long a period to face in uncertainty and upheaval, following long repression and recent trauma, and under the seemingly uncaring auspice of a foreign power. And it's too long to expect the people of Iraq to continue to give us the benefit of the doubt, to continue to believe our heart is in the right place. If we want them to know we are acting with their future in mind, now is the time to demonstrate that, not months from now. We need to give the people of Iraq a reason to put our ugly history, and the resentment it's instilled, firmly in the past; and we need to do it before that past catches up to us. Surely there's more we can do to win their support than just toppling a statue.

April 29, 2003 1:01 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Excellent post-man you know you're stuff.

Posted by Tora on April 30, 2003 3:45 AM

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