Monday, April 19, 2004

The Way Forward

I continue to be outraged by the reports coming out of Fallujah. It appears that there will most likely never be an admission of guilt, or even mistakes in judgment, coming out of this administration, let alone those responsible for the unlawful killing of civilians being held accountable. And time marches on. Where do we go from here?

I don't think US troops should just leave. That mistake was made in Somalia. No, I do not think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. But we are there now, and debating if the majority who supported that decision were hoodwinked or not is a discussion for another day. The reality is we have troops on the ground, and they have to stay there, for now.

I don't think we can pass the buck to the UN. We decided to move on this unilateral preemptive strike. We need to clean up our own mess.

Newsweek is carrying a piece by Fareed Zakaria, Our Last Real Chance; The way forward: The administration has to admit its mistakes and try to repair the damage. Here's how...

Although some of the recommendations are hard for me to swallow, it is the best plan I have seen yet. Without spiraling into hyperbole and tossing about accusations of who did what, etc. (which I freely admit is my personal inclination), he summarizes the current situation in a way that I think most people will accept:

...there is a distinct danger that what we are witnessing in Iraq could turn the national mood against the United States. Recent polls suggest that Iraqis remain tolerant of, though not happy with, American forces in their country. But that support is clearly waning. Images of America's massive operations in Fallujah have generated anti-American sentiment across Iraq. The United States could be entering a ruinous cycle. As attacks on its troops grow, it uses full-blown military might, which produces anti-Americanism, which helps insurgents. When pro-American members of the Governing Council resign in protest, it must be that they sense a shift in the public mood.
It is debatable if we can expect this administration to admit that the use of "full-blown military might" was a mistake. The current shift in their attitude toward the UN suggests that there is hope, however. We may never hear an admission of error publicly, but it does appear that the strategy can be changed if it's not working. And the current military strategy is not working.

To summarize, here are the steps suggested by Zakaria:

1. To succeed in Iraq, the US must establish power and legitimacy. Power does not refer to military attacks. In this case, it is primarily about security. Until Iraq is safe for its citizens, nothing else is going to get done. The reality is that the Iraqi security forces have not been well trained, and are ineffective. They need to be pulled off the streets, with American troops put in their place. This means as much as doubling the number of troops. Yes, this goes against my own grain, but until there is some semblance of security on the streets, we cannot ask our allies to put their lives at risk. For a short time, we will have to supply the soldiers necessary to patrol the neighborhoods of Baghdad. Eventually, we can accept the offers from France and Germany to assist us in "keeping the peace." In the meantime, we can be training an Iraqi security force.

2. To establish legitimacy, the US needs to immediately begin supporting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a voice that will be heard by the majority of the Shi'ites, and will be helpful in the establishment of an Iraqi government that will be accepted by the people.

Sunni leaders must also be courted, in order to separate the Sunni from the militants. This will not be easy, in light of Fallujah. But the continuation of the overuse of military force is a recipe for disaster.

I don't like the idea of putting more American lives on the line (the estimate is 500,000), but I see no other way forward at this point.

Let me offer an explanation of why I think this is the best way forward. My experience is that sometimes we can gain a little understanding of the macrocosm by studying the microcosm. So, here's the microcosm that is running around in my head;

About twelve years ago, I was serving at a Cathedral situated in the midst of a declining neighborhood of rental properties, in which a number of ethnic groups had taken up residence. I found out that the city was planning on buying up the property and tearing down the homes, as the neighborhood was seen as an eyesore and a potential source for increased crime. We served these residents at our food program each week, and so I had gotten to know many of them personally. Some of the other community groups that worked with us on the food program agreed we needed to meet, to brainstorm what we could do to save this neighborhood, as these families would most likely become homeless if these low rent residences disappeared.

We developed a coalition of churches, social service workers, and members of the local community action program. After developing a plan, we met with the city manager and his staff. With the blessing of the city, and support of the local paper, we launched a neighborhood task force. The coalition added members of the city manager's staff, and influential citizens of the city, to its membership.

We began by going door to door throughout the neighborhood with flyers inviting the residents to a community center located in their neighborhood for a Halloween event for their children. These initial contacts were critical, as the conversations inevitably drifted into the needs of the neighborhood.

When the event happened, every member of the coalition turned out; there were more task force members than residents present. Our focus was offering a first class event for the children, which we did. We also, quite intentionally, began to network with the parents, who brought their children to the event, and began identifying their leaders. At the end of the fun day, we announced the next community meeting, primarily for the adults, and had flyers ready for them to take home.

Some of the task force members worked or lived near this neighborhood. We began to drive, or walk when weather permitted, through this neighborhood, taking time to stop and talk with the residents when possible. We also functioned as a buffer with the city, and eventually gained the cooperation of the local police, who had previously taken a hard line with the residents. They continued to patrol the neighborhood, but made an effort to curtail their previous aggressive responses. Some of the officers participated in the community events, and expressed support for the work of the task force.

A small stream ran along a concrete waterway near this neighborhood. Shortly after this event, the members of the task force waded into this stream and pulled out mountains of old tires, furniture, and other trash. We made sure the press was there, and that they took pictures.

When the next community meeting was held, the residents had noted our clean-up efforts, and were full of ideas for other projects. Again, the task force was present in full force, but now more as facilitators, and accounted for about half of those present.

As the months went by, and the community meetings continued, an obvious new spirit began to be felt in the neighborhood. Front yards were cleaned up. The smell of fresh paint was in the air many days. When the residents appeared at the food program or social services, there was a sense that we were all working together as part of a team. They elected leaders for their neighborhood committee, who, working with the local police department, established a "neighborhood watch" program, and began to police themselves. We made sure that a member of the original task force remained a member of their committee, but eventually the task force was able to disband, and the staff of the city manager began to work directly with the residents toward future improvements, which involved, among other things, getting the landlords on board; a struggle more effectively mounted by the city than a group of volunteers.

This is an imperfect microcosm, of course. The residents of this neighborhood were not taking shots at us. Well, except for that one night when my car became a backup ambulance and I became an honorary member of the Latin Kings....but that's another story. I've digressed far enough for one day. I think there are some parallels between the successful intervention in that one small neighborhood, and a successful intervention in Iraq. From what I have seen, Zakaria sums up the way towards such a success quite well.


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