Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Freedom, Part II, Is The Hardest

By Rob Elder

Americans are bombarded by almost too much news from Iraq. TV footage of sick babies who drank impure water. Newspaper stories about political jousting for control. Contradictions among American generals as to whether looters are to be shot on sight.

Who can make sense of it all?

I have a friend who can. He's working in Iraq, as part of the post-war rebuilding operation. I can't quote him by name, because his employers would not be happy about his candor. But I can share some of his observations.

"It would be hard to claim there is a strategy at work. Saving Iraq is definitely an ad hoc operation," my friend wrote to me and others via email. That's because, my friend says, basic political decisions weren't made in advance, in Washington: "Is the goal of reconstruction to transform Iraq into an instant free-market success, or to get the people working, the economy functioning and services restored?

"As much as the war plan was sweated over, watching the US AID folks stumble through basic political questions, which should have been asked and answered long before bombs away, is disheartening.

"The people who are here to rebuild Iraq are overwhelmingly decent, compassionate people—inspiring, resilient, tough, smart, empathetic and for the most part, surprisingly humble.

"Yet I have a nagging sense that only a handful realize how small a window they have to succeed. The brave talk is 18 months contract, two years, four, six years, a decade-long task. But every Friday after prayers, demonstrations get bigger, and the first bulldozer still hasn't arrived.

"The feeling gnaws at me that no matter how hard they push the rock, it's a steep uphill and the mountain is too big. This was a place where (Colin) Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force could and should have been used have 10,000 pieces of rolling stock, turbines, communication dishes and a year's supply of fresh water and medicine for the whole country sitting on the border ready to roll."

Here I want to draw a clear line between what my friend is reporting from Iraq, and some conclusions I draw from it. So far it has been him talking. From now on, it's me.

First, in the overall War Against Terrorism, the battles of Baghdad and Basra and the rebuilding effort are one and the same thing. The Arab world is not going to separate them, nor will the world in general.

Before the first missiles were fired, President Bush drew a different distinction: Our quarrel was with Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people. This had two clear implications: We would do as little harm as possible, to Iraqi civilians, and we would help restore order, after Saddam.

From all I've read, the United States and Britain did at least fairly well at targeting the Saddam regime and the military. The job was made more complicated by the regime's tendency to use civilians as human shields. No one knows how many civilians died, but thanks to weapons technology, it was fewer than it might have been. (Try telling that, however, to a man whose wife and children were killed, whose home was destroyed, and whose workplace was obliterated.)

But on part two—the rebuilding part—Washington seems to have spent considerably less thought. When the president talked repeatedly about "freedom" for Iraqis, he meant freedom from Saddam's oppression. But what good is that, so long as people are not free from looting and other forms of violence?

This week, as the violence worsened by the day, the U.S. actually began withdrawing the Third Armored Division, although that withdrawal halted Wednesday and Thursday, as American commanders promised to get more, not fewer troops on the streets.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld rejected the word "anarchy" as a description of present conditions in Baghdad, calling it a "headline writer's word." Fine. Let him substitute any euphemism he likes. But so long as Iraqis are terrorized by lawlessness and lack the essentials of life, the distinction between terrorism and what we have done to their country will become increasingly blurred. And that is not a distinction we can afford to lose.

Rob Elder is senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The opinions expressed here are his own, and not necessarily those of others at the Center. This op-ed orignally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on May 18th.

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