This is The Big One, but Bush doesn't act like it

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In the wake of the bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad, some "terrorism experts" (By the way, how do you get to be a terrorism expert? Can you get a degree in terrorism or do you just have to appear on Fox News?) have argued that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a failure because all it's doing is attracting terrorists to Iraq and generating more hatred toward America.

I have no doubt that the U.S. presence in Iraq is attracting all sorts of terrorists and Islamists to oppose the United States. I also have no doubt that politicians and intellectuals in the nearby Arab states are rooting against America in Iraq because they want Arabs and the world to believe that the corrupt autocracies that have so long dominated Arab life, and failed to deliver for their people, are the best anyone can hope for.


But I totally disagree that this is a sign that everything is going wrong in Iraq. The truth is exactly the opposite.

We are attracting all these opponents to Iraq because they understand this war is The Big One. They don't believe their own propaganda. They know this is not a war for oil. They know this is a war over ideas and values and governance. They know this war is about Western powers, helped by the United Nations, coming into the heart of their world to promote more decent, open, tolerant, women-friendly, pluralistic governments by starting with Iraq - a country that contains all the main strands of the region: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.


You'd think from listening to America's European and Arab critics that we'd upset some bucolic native culture and natural harmony in Iraq, as if the Baath Party were some colorful local tribe out of National Geographic. Alas, our opponents in Iraq, and their fellow travelers, know otherwise.

They know they represent various forms of clan and gang rule, and various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism - from Talibanism to Baathism. And they know that they need external enemies to thrive and justify imposing their demented visions.

In short, America's opponents know just what's at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: Beat America's ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.

One of the most interesting conversations I had in Baghdad was with Muhammed A. Al-Da'Mi, a literature professor at Baghdad University and author of Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers. He has spent a lifetime studying the interactions between East and West.

"Cultures can't be closed on themselves for long without paying a price," he explained. "But ours has been a vestigial and closed culture for many years now. The West needed us in the past and now we need it. This is the circle of history. Essentially [what you are seeing here] is a cultural collision.

"I am optimistic insofar as I believe that my country - and I am a pan-Arab nationalist - is going to benefit from this encounter with the more advanced society, and we are going pay at the same time. Your experience in Iraq is going to create two reactions: One is hypersensitivity, led by the Islamists, and the other is welcoming, led by the secularists. [But you have to understand] that what you are doing is a penetration of one culture into another. If you succeed here, Iraq could change the habits and customs of the people in the whole area."

So, the terrorists get it. Iraqi liberals get it. The Bush team talks as if it gets it, but it doesn't act like it. The Bush team tells us, rightly, that this nation-building project is the equivalent of Germany in 1945, and yet, so far, it has approached the postwar in Iraq as if it's Grenada in 1983.

We may fail, but not because we have attracted terrorists who understand what's at stake in Iraq. We may fail because of the utter incompetence with which the Pentagon leadership has handled the postwar. (We don't even have enough translators there, let alone MPs, and the media network we've set up there to talk to Iraqis is so bad we'd be better off buying ads on Al-Jazeera.)


We may fail because the Bush team thinks it can fight The Big One in the Middle East while cutting taxes at home, shrinking the U.S. Army and changing the tax code to encourage Americans to buy gas-guzzling cars that make us more dependent on Mideast oil, and by gratuitously alienating allies.

We may fail because to win The Big One, we need an American public, and allies, ready to pay any price and bear any burden, but we have a president unable or unwilling to summon either.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.