Now the hard part begins

Posted: Apr 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Now that U.S. forces occupy Tikrit, the major fighting in Iraq is over.

The emphasis now shifts toward post-war political goals. And rightly so. The ability of the United States to demolish Saddam's regime was never in question. The ability of the United States to decimate much of the country without alienating the people they claimed to be liberating, was subject to greater debate.

The images of Iraqi citizens waving American flags and toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein offer immediate hope. Such images proclaim, in no uncertain terms, that the United States has ended a holocaust. That undercuts much of the self-righteous, antiwar rhetoric coming out of France, Germany and Russia. More importantly, it provides a counterbalance to the image of America as an imperialist invader.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language news network, made a living inflaming this sort of anti-American sentiment and distilling America's complex motives for war into sound bites about oil lust and family vendettas against Saddam. And President Bush kept them supplied with ammunition by over generalizing the immediacy of the threat Iraq posed. The images of April 9 provide a fuller picture. They suggest that America remains an engine of moral change. They suggest that America is good. This is really quite startling, because up until April 9, most of the Arab world would be damned if they would even consider such a notion. Now, at the very least, there is room for discussion.

The Bush administration must capitalize on this opportunity to help shape Iraq into a progressive Arab state that can provide the rest of the Middle East with a powerful and immediate example of how democracy works (or, more to the point, that social democracy is the not the root of the world's ills). This will be the largest nation-building exercise since Japan and Germany. Its success is of absolute importance.

With the population explosion in the Middle East and the confluence of radical religious ideology, poverty and jealously at America's position on the world stage, the area is poised to churn out an entire generation of people with a single-minded dedication to harming the United States. Normalizing relations in this part of the world is the real justification for the war with Iraq. As such, the success of the war can only be properly judged in terms of the rebuilding effort.

That is precisely why the United States must now engage the international community in the rebuilding effort. Lately, the hawks in this administration have been talking about freezing out the UN. The logic being that we sacrificed our lives and paid for the war, therefore, we should enjoy the spoils. This would be a huge mistake. Freezing out the UN will reinforce all of the negative stereotypes about the United States as a colonial empire, thus undermining the moral credibility we achieved by liberating the Iraqi people.

Monopolizing the rebuilding of Iraq will also establish the Unites States as the sole target of blame for the arduous path that lies ahead. Reshaping Iraq will not be easy. Iraq has no history of democratic rule. They have no sense of private ownership. Change of this magnitude will come in painful fits and stabs, as opposed to a smooth evolution.

The alternative? Having liberated the Iraqi people, we install a friendly interim government, secure some U.S. business interests, and then move out, making us the target for the entire world's frustrations.

Upon this next phase of the war, the future of our relations with the Arab world turns.