Monday, March 24, 2003

They like us, they really like us. Don't they? No, they don't. Two stories today call into question the very underlying principles of this operation. On the front page of the Washington Post, Anthony Shadid -- formerly of the Boston Globe -- reports on a formerly middle-class Bagdhad family under siege. (The story was also carried on the front of the Globe's special war section.) They're anti-Saddam, they bravely talk about how glad they'll be to see him go, but they have no use for the Americans. Shadid writes:

When it came to the cause of Iraq's predicament, family members pointed to Hussein, describing him as rash. He invaded Iran, trapping them in an eight-year war. He seized Kuwait, bringing on the Persian Gulf War and the devastation of sanctions that largely wiped out Iraq's middle class. After that war, they were ready to overthrow him themselves.

But they bitterly denounced the war the United States has launched. Iraq, perhaps more than any other Arab country, dwells on traditions -- of pride, honor and dignity. To this family, the assault is an insult. It is not Hussein under attack, but Iraq, they said. It is hard to gauge if this is a common sentiment, although it is one heard more often as the war progresses.

"We complain about things, but complaining doesn't mean cooperating with foreign governments," the father said. "When somebody comes to attack Iraq, we stand up for Iraq. That doesn't mean we love Saddam Hussein, but there are priorities."

A friend of the family interrupted. "Bombing for peace?" he asked, shaking his head.

On the front page of the Globe, Charles Radin reports that Saddam is an increasingly popular icon on the West Bank, just as he was during the first Gulf War, and that he is certainly more popular than Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The comments of the uninformed are frightening enough, but even the well-educated and reasonable -- such as Dr. Randa Nabulsi -- find Saddam preferable to an invasion by US forces. Radin writes:

''My children asked me, 'Why are you weeping?' and I said it was because we are all Iraqis,'' Nabulsi said. ''My 12-year-old daughter asked me, 'Do you like Saddam Hussein?' and I didn't know how to answer.

''I told her he was a disaster, he killed all those people in Halabja, and my daughter said, 'Are you with Saddam Hussein or not?' and I said I am with Iraq.''

Even though she tries to level with her children, this was not quite the whole truth, she said later.

''I am against Saddam Hussein. He is terrible, not a human being,'' Nabulsi said. ''But in this moment, I am with Saddam Hussein.''

The problem with this war is not that it is immoral but, rather, excessively moralistic and naive, driven by a view that we can make Iraq -- and, eventually, the rest of the Arab world -- just like Middle America. So how does stirring up such hatred serve our national interest? It would be a good question to ask Rumsfeld at his next briefing.

At this point, of course, there's no retreating. We have to win this as quickly, and with as little loss of life on both sides, as possible. But making this look like anything other than a mistake during the postwar aftermath is obviously going to be a monumental task.

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