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Shattered

by Rob Eshman

June 30, 2005 | 8:00 pm

I'm not sure, but Tom and I may be breaking up.

It's not over yet, and he doesn't know about this -- largely because he couldn't care less -- but from where I sit, Tom Friedman is looking less and less like the Sage of Bethesda and more and more like a tone-deaf Telemachus.

Back before the start of the Iraq War, I was wrestling with the pros and cons of the invasion. The most compelling arguments on both sides held me firmly, indecisively, in the middle. The war's opponents pointed out that Iraq was not responsible for Sept. 11; that invading and occupying Iraq would unleash a Pandora's Box of unforeseeable agony; that international and internal pressures would eventually weaken or eradicate Saddam Hussein.

The war's proponent's raised the issue of Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction; his genocidal cruelty and intentions, and the fact that, left to its own devices, the international community would never take decisive action against a cruel and dangerous regime.

Then I read New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. The man was not following anyone's party line; he was going where his reporting took him. He had spent years traveling the Mideast, speaking with despots and citizens, intellects and imams, and his argument was this: Hussein was a bad man with dangerous plans, and the United States had an opportunity, a window, to help change the tide of tyranny in the Middle East. If done correctly -- and that was Friedman's big "if" -- the United States could birth a democracy in the black heart of the world, and change its future and ours.

In January 2004, as the Bush team pressed toward war, Friedman wrote a two-installment column, "Thinking About Iraq," which weighed the arguments of the pro- and anti-war sides.

"My gut tells me we should continue the troop buildup, continue the inspections and do everything we can for as long as we can to produce either a coup or the sort of evidence that will give us the broadest coalition possible, so we can do the best nation-building job possible," he wrote at the end of Part 2. "But if war turns out to be the only option, then war it will have to be -- because I believe that our kids will have a better chance of growing up in a safer world if we help put Iraq on a more progressive path and stimulate some real change in an Arab world that is badly in need of reform. Such a war would indeed be a shock to this region, but, if we do it right, there is a decent chance that it would be shock therapy."

Call it a kinder, gentler neoconservatism, but it tipped the argument for me to the pro-invasion side.

"When people have asked me where the Los Angeles Jewish community stands on the war with Iraq," I wrote in March 2003, "I've said that about one-third are in favor, one-third stand opposed and one-third stand with Tom Friedman."

There were two nagging problems I had with Friedman's good sense, but I suppressed them. One was I knew, deep down, Iraq was not a war I would fight, or that I'd want my children to fight. The war made a kind of sense. It held out hope for a better world, but it was not a war of self-defense. And if it wasn't worth my life or the life of a loved one, how was it worth someone else's?

Also, I knew the government that had goofed up pre-Sept. 11 intelligence was more than capable of fumbling Iraq as well.

Those two problems have only grown in my mind as the facts become clearer and as the body count grows. With more than 1,740 American lives and thousands of Iraqi lives lost, the obvious question that should be dogging at all our consciences is: How many lives is this worth?

Friedman's answer, of sorts, came in a June 16 column titled, "Let's Talk About Iraq." Recounting the country's spiraling violence since its successful election, Friedman blames Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his refusal to go into Iraq with enough troops to pacify the country.

"Maybe it is too late, but before we give up on Iraq, why not actually try to do it right?" he writes. "Double the American boots on the ground and re-double the diplomatic effort to bring in those Sunnis who want to be part of the process and fight to the death those who don't."

In short, Friedman wants to correct the mistake by compounding it. But why hand over more young lives to an administration that has squandered so many already?

Friedman provides no evidence that Rumsfeld, the president or the vice president have learned from their failures, held anyone accountable for them or can even admit them. And his answer: Give them more lives to put at risk.

Friedman, who never met a metaphor he couldn't turn into a book, was the one who coined "The Pottery Barn Rule," often credited to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The United States could invade Iraq and win, but it had better be prepared to deal with the aftermath.

"You break it, you own it," wrote Friedman, quoting the Pottery Barn rule.

Except it's not true. A spokesman for the home store told reporters the company has no such policy, and anyone who has shopped there with young children can attest to that fact. For better or worse, even though we shattered Iraq, we, too, can leave behind the shards and walk away.

Perhaps that is not the best option, but neither is giving Rumsfeld more soldiers.

The truth is I don't know. And neither does Friedman.

 

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