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Commentary: US caught in Iraqi dramatics
( 2003-09-23 21:57) (New York Times by David Brooks)

During the first half of the 90's, I spent some time on the "Whither NATO?" circuit. I'd sit in stately European palaces with diplomats, parliamentarians and multilateral men who used the word "modality" a lot, and we'd discuss the post-cold-war international order.

There were disquisitions on multipolarity, subsidiarity and post-nation-state sovereignty. I recall a long debate on whether the post-cold-war United States would face east or west, as if we were phototropic.

The people at these conferences tended to be paranoiaphiliacs. They believed there was a secret conspiracy running the world, but they were in favor of it because they thought they were it.

But even as we were ratiocinating in those palaces, the Russians were tossing out Gorbachev, the Ukrainians were breaking away from Russia and the Serbs were massacring their neighbors.

Far from mastering events, the poor souls who attended summits found history moving in unfathomable directions. Their careful negotiations over a new global architecture often had nothing to do with reality. The economic-reform plans they proposed for Russia had nothing to do with a country that was being taken over by mafioso. I recall the dispiriting moment at a stately manor in Oxfordshire, I believe when I realized I didn't really believe in foreign policy. Most problems are domestic policy to the people who matter most.

All of this comes to mind as President Bush goes to the U.N. to discuss a resolution on the reconstruction of Iraq. The U.S. and the Iraqis face a series of tortuous problems together: how to quickly strengthen the Iraqi military, but not in a way that allows it to dwarf Iraqi civilian rule; how to respect the Shiite clergy without allowing clerical domination of education and social policy; how to open the nation up for foreign investment, but not in a way that the locals feel their country is being plundered. Nation-building is too grand a phrase for much of the work that is being done; it's neighborhood-building in all its granular specificity.

But the talk around the Security Council is 8,000 miles above all that. There are discussions about which flow chart the U.S. administrator Paul Bremer should fit into. There are lofty and vapid formulations about moving from the "logic of occupation" to the "logic of sovereignty." This weekend, Dominique de Villepin published an essay in an Austrian paper in which he (of course!) called for an international conference to supervise the administration of Iraq.

The more you look at the Security Council negotiations, the more they resemble one of those horrible divorces in which the children get ignored because the parents are caught up in the psychodrama of each other's perfidies. You've got the usual Franco-American dramatics. You've got the Germans trying to make everyone like them. Meanwhile, the actual needs of actual Iraqis never seem to come in for much discussion.

It's time to acknowledge that the reconstruction of Iraq is too important to be left to the foreign policy types, who are trained to think too abstractly to grapple with the problems that matter.

The good things that are happening in Iraq are taking place far below the level of grand strategy. On Sunday, 18 bankers and civil servants from 11 central and Eastern European countries came to Iraq to describe the lessons they had learned in moving from tyranny to democracy. Every day, U.N. humanitarian workers, far removed from the marble halls of the Security Council, risk their lives to feed and clothe Iraqis. Every day, U.S. military officers spend millions of dollars building schools and tackling neighborhood issues. That's the work that gives Iraqis hope. Seventy percent of Iraqis expect their lives to improve over the next five years, and two-thirds want coalition forces to stay for at least a year, according to a recent Zogby poll.

Over the long term, we need to create an apolitical reservist force, made up of of businesspeople, administrators and police officers who have concrete experience in moving societies from dictatorship to democracy. In the meantime, we need to focus on serving the Iraqis first, second and last. We don't need to get caught up in a distracting round of lofty debates among the world's Walter Mitty Metternichs, who treat the Iraqi people as pawns in their great game-power struggles.

 
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