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Thomas Friedman paints Iraq

(Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

(Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

In a July 14 column on the New York Times website entitled “Goodbye Iraq, and Good Luck,” Thomas Friedman informs us that he is in Kirkuk “tagging along” with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are at a meeting with 11 Iraqi provincial leaders, a sum Friedman explains has been dealt with by “local U.S. officials [who] have provided me a color-coded guide, identifying each Iraqi politician, their political tendencies and religious affiliation.”

The topic of discussion is which part of Kirkuk should be assigned to which color group. The 11 representatives—“seated on one side of the conference table”—present their  claims one by one via Arabic interpreter, until a Kurd breaks the succession with a joke in English. Friedman notes that it is his lucky day, and provides a transcript of the joke:

After Saddam was ousted in 2003… there was an elderly citizen who wanted to write a letter to the new government to explain all his sufferings from the Saddam era to get compensation. But he was illiterate. As you may know, outside our government offices we have professional letter-writers for illiterate people. So the man told the letter-writer all of his problems. ‘In the ’50s, they destroyed my house,’ he said. ‘In the ’60s, they killed two of my sons. In the ’70s, they confiscated my properties,’ and so on, right up to today. The letter-writer wrote it all down. When he was done, the man asked the letter-writer to read it back to him before he handed it to the governor. So the letter-writer read it aloud. When he got done, the man hit himself on the head and said, ‘That is so beautifully done. I had no idea all this happened to me.’ ”

Friedman then supplies a translation of the joke, as even Orientals expressing themselves in English require outside decipherment. Friedman’s rendering is as follows: “Everyone here has a history, and it’s mostly painful. We Iraqis love to tell our histories. And the more we do, the better they get. But with you Americans leaving, we need to decide: Do we keep telling our stories, or do we figure out how to settle our differences?”

An observer unfamiliar with Iraqi culture might have interpreted the Kurd’s joke to simply mean that color-coded representatives were embellishing their claims to Kirkuk. The untrained eye might have also failed to detect the reference to the Americans, or wondered why Friedman’s version of the joke was not funny.

Friedman’s ability to extract his subject’s true vision may be an effect of the priority he has continually placed on understanding Iraqis. In an October 2003 New York Times column entitled “It’s No Vietnam,”  for example, he stresses the importance of understanding the suicide bomber who drove an explosives-laden ambulance into the Red Cross office in Baghdad on the first day of Ramadan. Discarding as “hogwash” the “notion being peddled by Europeans, the Arab press and the antiwar left that ‘Iraq’ is just Arabic for Vietnam,” Friedman determines that suicide bombers are not in fact the Iraqi Vietcong but rather the Iraqi Khmer Rouge. The theory that ‘Iraq’ is instead Arabic for Cambodia accumulates momentum when we consider that recruitment of suicide bombers and genocidal communists has generally been facilitated by US military maneuvers.

Friedman rues the tossing aside of “civilizational norms” by the Ramadan bomber, who “was not restrained by either the sanctity of the Muslim holy day or the sanctity of the Red Cross.” Civilizational norms have since been restored by Israel, however, which has demonstrated restraint by targeting Red Cross ambulances in Lebanon and undertaking massacres in Gaza during Hanukah.

The aversion of suicide bombers to being color-coded is noted as follows: “Have you noticed that these bombers never say what their political agenda is or whom they represent? They don’t want Iraqis to know who they really are.” Friedman of course knows that they are the Khmer Rouge, just as he knows that the invasion of Iraq “is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched — a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.”

By the time his column of August 4, 2006 rolls around, Friedman has decided that “we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.” The difficulty in talking about Iraq without resorting to child-related imagery has also been suggested by George Bush’s enthusiasm for purple ink-stained fingers, which constituted an opportunity for monochrome national existence before being replaced by color codes in Kirkuk. Friedman emphasizes in August of 2006 that “it’s time to start thinking about Plan B — how we might disengage with the least damage possible,” although he does pinpoint potential benefits of an all-out civil war in Iraq such as that it would encourage investment in alternative fuels and create headaches for Iran.

Plan B becomes “Goodbye Iraq, and Good Luck”—the title of Friedman’s July 14, 2009 column—with the goodbye occurring despite the fact that “Iraqis know who they were, and they don’t always like it, but they still have not figured out whom they want to be as a country.” Identity limbo has of course been partially resolved by the fact that the Iraqis have been assigned colors, a project indicating that Friedman is not the only person who understands Iraqis: “I am amazed in talking to U.S. Army officers here as to how much they’ve learned from and about Iraqis. It has taken way too long, but our soldiers understand this place.”

As for the learning processes of Iraqis in Kirkuk, Friedman ruminates:

In the dining hall on the main base, I like to watch the Iraqi officers watching the melting pot of U.S. soldiers around them — men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics — and wonder: What have they learned from us? We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.”

He does not specify how he would react if the 11 color-coded Iraqis abandoned their colors and staged an invasion of the US.

Friedman disagrees with certain aspects of Admiral Mullen’s warning to the Iraqis that the US is not going to solve the country’s problems, basing his disagreement on such evidence as that “[w]e are the only trusted player here — even by those who hate us” and that “[a]fter we invaded and stabilized Bosnia, we didn’t just toss their competing factions the keys. President Bill Clinton organized the Dayton peace talks and Richard Holbrooke brokered a deal that has lasted to this day.” He fails to fully consider the implications of his 2001 New York Times article entitled “Not Happening,” in which he warns that Dayton and democracy are mutually exclusive: “Bosnia can be democratic and self-sustaining, but only if the country gives up being unified and multi-ethnic.”

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