Difficult, but necessary, surgery in Iraq

Posted: May 05, 2004 12:00 AM

"Good Lord! You sliced that man open from his neck to his belly! You've cut out his heart! . You're sucking out his blood, you ghoul!"

These are just some of the things you might say if you stumbled on a surgeon conducting a heart transplant.

Of course, you wouldn't actually say it because you'd see the men and women in their gowns and masks, along with all the medical doodads including "the machine that goes 'ping'" - as they say in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

But the important thing to keep in mind is that in a major operation - on a person or a nation - the patient is the most vulnerable, and looks the most horrible, halfway into the procedure, not at the beginning or the end. And if, in your horror, you screamed, "Stop what you're doing right now!" you'd be saying you want the patient to die.

It's not the best analogy for Iraq. Heart surgeons typically have lots of experience. They have guidelines that, if followed more or less faithfully, will yield success most of the time. And heart surgeons rarely get harassed in the operating room.

Meanwhile, nobody under the age of 80 has worked on as ambitious a nation-building project as what we're doing in Iraq. An operation of this magnitude has only been conducted twice before in the modern era, in Germany and Japan. And those were very different patients.

Everywhere else what we call "nation-building" has been tried, it has been on a much smaller scale, with more good will from the people on the ground, the nations in the region and the so-called "international community."

And, in the past, the stakes for America have been far, far smaller. Getting Haiti or Somalia or the former Yugoslavia up and running as healthy societies may or may not have been worth doing, depending on your viewpoint. But there's no disputing that the consequences of failure in Haiti and Somalia - two places we did more or less fail - have been trivial to the United States. Yugoslavia is still a work in progress, but even if the Balkans suddenly exploded - as is their wont - the bottom line for the United States would be pretty minor.

If we mess up Iraq, on the other hand, it will be a disaster of biblical proportions. Iraq will go into a bloody civil war, the region will destabilize, al-Qaida will grow, oil prices might skyrocket, democracy in the region will founder for a generation, millions more Muslims will embrace terrorism, and even millions more will emigrate to America and Europe to escape the poverty and chaos our failure will encourage. Cats will sleep with dogs. And, perhaps most dangerous, American resolve will lose credibility around the world, which will exact a terrible price in as-yet-unknown hotspots.

When Sen. Ted Kennedy says the invasion of Iraq is possibly "the worst blunder in the entire history of American foreign policy," he's putting the cart before the horse (and giving short-shrift to his brother's work in Vietnam). The worst blunder would be the failure to see things through in Iraq.

What's sad is that Kennedy's partisanship makes that blunder more likely. That's probably what prompted Sen. Joe Lieberman to be the grown-up in the Democratic party and ask his colleagues to "stop encouraging our enemies" by undermining the administration's efforts in Iraq.

Still, at this point, there's simply no disputing that Iraq reconstruction isn't going well, though not as badly as many think.

Much of the country is doing just fine, especially the Kurdish north. But the confusing mess in Fallujah, the outrageous prison abuse story, the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr isn't in chains yet, the seemingly deteriorating security and the less than encouraging public opinion data from across non-Kurdish Iraq suggest that if the "new Iraq" were a patient on the operating table, the ping machine would be going kerplunk.

Even defenders of the war are getting understandably anxious about the course of reconstruction, worried that we are turning our back on our lofty goals. My hope is that what we are witnessing with the halting of "de-Baathification," our backing down in Fallujah, etc., is realism about means, not ends. Compromises on the way to a new Iraq are like amputations on the way to saving a patient - hard choices, but tolerable in comparison to the alternative.

But, you know what? We were told rebuilding Iraq would be hard. When Bush spoke underneath that much derided "mission accomplished" banner, he said this was going to be long and hard. Well, folks, this is precisely what long and hard looks like. Nation building is ugly and difficult; so is cutting out a man's bad heart and putting in a good one.