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The Chant Not Heard

Thomas L. Friedman- Monday 1st Dec 2003



I stood on the sidewalk in London the other day and watched thousands of antiwar, anti-George Bush, anti-Tony Blair protesters pass by. They chanted every antiwar slogan you could imagine and many you couldn't print. It was entertaining — but also depressing, because it was so disconnected from the day's other news.

Just a few hours earlier, terrorists in Istanbul had blown up a British-owned bank and the British consulate, killing or wounding scores of British and Turkish civilians. Yet nowhere could I find a single sign in London reading, "Osama, How Many Innocents Did You Kill Today?" or "Baathists — Hands Off the U.N. and the Red Cross in Iraq." Hey, I would have settled for "Bush and Blair Equal Bin Laden and Saddam" — something, anything, that acknowledged that the threats to global peace today weren't just coming from the White House and Downing Street.

Sorry, but there is something morally obtuse about holding an antiwar rally on a day when your own people have been murdered — and not even mentioning it or those who perpetrated it. Watching this scene, I couldn't help but wonder whether George Bush had made the liberal left crazy. It can't see anything else in the world today, other than the Bush-Blair original sin of launching the Iraq war, without U.N. approval or proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Believe me, being a liberal on every issue other than this war, I have great sympathy for where the left is coming from. And if I didn't, my wife would remind me. It would be a lot easier for the left to engage in a little postwar reconsideration if it saw even an ounce of reflection, contrition or self-criticism coming from the conservatives, such as Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, who drove this war, yet so bungled its aftermath and so misjudged the complexity of postwar Iraq. Moreover, the Bush team is such a partisan, ideological, nonhealing administration that many liberals just want to punch its lights out — which is what the Howard Dean phenomenon is all about.

But here's why the left needs to get beyond its opposition to the war and start pitching in with its own ideas and moral support to try to make lemons into lemonade in Baghdad:

First, even though the Bush team came to this theme late in the day, this war is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan. The primary focus of U.S. forces in Iraq today is erecting a decent, legitimate, tolerant, pluralistic representative government from the ground up. I don't know if we can pull this off. We got off to an unnecessarily bad start. But it is one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad and it is a moral and strategic imperative that we give it our best shot.

Unless we begin the long process of partnering with the Arab world to dig it out of the developmental hole it's in, this angry, frustrated region is going to spew out threats to world peace forever. The next six months in Iraq — which will determine the prospects for democracy-building there — are the most important six months in U.S. foreign policy in a long, long time. And it is way too important to leave it to the Bush team alone.

On Iraq, there has to be more to the left than anti-Bushism. The senior Democrat who understands that best is the one not running for president — Senator Joe Biden. He understands that the liberal opposition to the Bush team should be from the right — to demand that we send more troops to Iraq, and more committed democracy builders, to do the job better and smarter than the Bush team has.

Second, we are seeing — from Bali to Istanbul — the birth of a virulent, nihilistic form of terrorism that seeks to kill any advocates of modernism and pluralism, be they Muslims, Christians or Jews. This terrorism started even before 9/11, and is growing in the darkest corners of the Muslim world. It is the most serious threat to open societies, because one more 9/11 and we'll really see an erosion of our civil liberties. Ultimately, only Arabs and Muslims can root out this threat, but they will do that only when they have ownership over their own lives and societies. Nurturing that is our real goal in Iraq.

"In general," says Robert Wright, author of "Nonzero," "too few who opposed the war understand the gravity of the terrorism problem, and too few who favored it understand the subtlety of the problem."

For my money, the right liberal approach to Iraq is to say: We can do it better. Which is why the sign I most hungered to see in London was, "Thanks, Mr. Bush. We'll take it from here."





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