WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - As I was riding back from the U.N. office in Baghdad a few days ago, I came to an intersection where an Iraqi civilian in a brown robe was directing traffic. I don't know whether he was a good Samaritan or simply out of his mind, but he had a big smile on his face and was waving cars here and there with the flourish of a symphony conductor.
Some cars obeyed his directives, and others didn't (there are still virtually no working stoplights in Baghdad), but he was definitely better than nothing - and he was definitely having a good time.
This man came to mind as I thought about the debate over whether we have enough troops in Iraq. The truth is, we don't even have enough people to direct traffic. This troops issue, though, is more complicated than it seems - because it's not just about numbers. No, what we need in Iraq today is something more complex: We need the right mentality, the right troops and the right Iraqi government. Let me explain.
Let's start with mentality. We are not "rebuilding" Iraq. We are "building" a new Iraq - from scratch. Not only have Saddam Hussein's army, party and bureaucracy collapsed, but so, too, has the internal balance between Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, which was held together by Mr. Hussein's iron fist.
Also, the reporting on Iraq under Mr. Hussein rarely conveyed how poor and rundown he had made it. Iraq today is the Arab Liberia. In short, Iraq is not a vase that we broke to remove the rancid water inside, and now we just need to glue it back together. We have to build a whole new vase. We have to dig the clay, mix it, shape it, harden it and paint it. (This is going to cost much more than President Bush has told us.)
Which leads to the second point. Yes, we need more boots on the ground, but we also need the right mix: military police, experts in civilian affairs and officers who know how to innovate. Sure, there is still a guerrilla war to be won, but the main task today for U.S. soldiers in Iraq is political: helping towns get organized, opening schools and managing the simmering tensions between, and within, different ethnic groups.
If Bulgarian or Polish troops can help do that, bring 'em on. If not, stay home.
Just ask Col. Ralph Baker, commander of the 2nd Brigade, who oversees two Baghdad districts. He and his officers have been conducting informal elections for local councils and getting neighborhoods to nominate their own trusted police.
"First we taught them how to run a meeting," he told me in his Baghdad office. "We had to teach them how to have an agenda. So instead of having this sort of group dialogue with no form, which they were used to, you now see them in council meetings raising their hands to speak. They get five minutes per member. It's basic PTA stuff. We've taught them how to motion ideas and vote on them. ... I have them prioritizing every school in their districts - which they want fixed first.
"I have to build credibility by making sure that every time they establish a priority, it gets done. That helps them establish credibility with their constituents. ... There is a big education process going on here that is democratically founded. The faster we get Iraqis taking responsibility, the faster we get out of here."
And that leads to the third point: We need to get the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council to do three things - now.
It must name a Cabinet, so Iraqis are running every ministry; announce a 300,000-person jobs program, so people see some tangible benefits delivered by their own government; and offer to immediately rehire any Iraqi army soldier who wants to serve in the new army, as long as he was not involved in Mr. Hussein's crimes. It was a huge - huge - mistake to disband the Iraqi army and put all those unemployed soldiers on the streets without enough U.S. troops to take their place.
Together, all of this would put much more of an Iraqi face on the government and security apparatus and begin to reclaim the mantle of Iraqi nationalism for the new government, taking it away from Hussein loyalists - who are trying to make a comeback under the phony banner of liberating Iraq from foreign occupation.
Again, I have to repeat the dictum of Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." Most Iraqis still feel they are renting their own country - first from Mr. Hussein and now from us. They have to be given ownership. If the Bush team is ready to put in the time, energy and money to make that happen - great. But if not, it's going to have to make the necessary compromises to bring in the United Nations and the international community to help.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.