WASHINGTON - I have long believed that any American general or senior diplomat who wants to work in Iraq should have to pass a test. It would be a very simple test. It would consist of only one question: "Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?"
If you answered "yes," you would not be allowed to work in Iraq. You could go to Korea, Japan or Germany - but not Iraq. Only those who understand that in the Middle East the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line should be allowed to carry out U.S. policy there.
What I worry about most right now - after a week in the Persian Gulf - is that we have entered a really complex, arabesque phase in Iraq. It requires enormous understanding of the complexities of Iraqi and Arab politics and the ability to produce outcomes not by the traditional, straightforward U.S. approach, but by the more subtle, bazaar-oriented politics in that part of the world.
For instance, with the elections in Iraq only six weeks away, and Iran actively using its influence and money to push its candidates, one thing is perfectly clear: The Bush neocons desperately need an Iraqi neo-Baath. By that I mean they need to find a political framework that will advance the interests of the pro-Baath Sunni Arab nationalists in Iraq, but do it with a more progressive, pluralistic outlook than the old Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
This is what we should be most focused on right now in Iraq - not the bogeyman of Iranian influence. There is no way to prevent Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran is next-door, and it has myriad economic and cultural links with Iraqi Shiites. Moreover, while the Iraqi Shiites are certain to emerge with the most seats in the new Iraqi parliament, and while some are pro-Iranian, the majority of Iraqi Shiites have no intention of being ruled from Tehran. The Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, not Persians, and they are aware of their Arabness. Any Iraqi leader who is depicted or presents himself as the cat's-paw of Tehran will face a backlash.
The best way to reduce Iran's influence, and to prevent civil war, is to ensure as much Sunni participation in the election as possible, so that when the new Iraqi constitution is written, the more secular Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis will balance the more religious-oriented Shiites. If there is not enough Sunni participation, the elections, rather than defusing civil strife in Iraq, will increase it, because all the spoils will go to the Shiites and Kurds, and the Sunnis will feel even more excluded.
For all these reasons, the Bush team should be working with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf Arab states and even Syria to use all their contacts with Iraqi Sunnis to embolden them to take part in the elections - and to make sure they have bags of money to get out the vote, particularly among the Sunni tribes. It is imperative the Sunnis be brought in, even if some have to be bought.
Unfortunately, America's Arab friends "are doing nothing" right now, a senior Iraqi minister told me. The Americans need to be more demanding of their Arab friends, he said. While many Arab leaders are appalled at the idea of Shiites ruling an Arab state in the otherwise Sunni-dominated Arab world, they also know that a civil war in Iraq would lead to terrible instability at a time when all these Arab regimes understand they have to start reforming.
Yes, the U.S. invasion of Iraq made America some new enemies, but it also has triggered a huge debate about reform in the Arab world, said Ammar Abdulhamid, who helps run Dar Emar, a pro-reform nongovernmental organization in Syria.
"For some people, it forced the reform issue, because they said, 'Let's change ourselves before the Americans change us,'" noted Mr. Abdulhamid. Some Arab liberals want to use the U.S. presence to pressure their governments to go ahead with reform. Some regimes are feeling very vulnerable and believe the only way to stave off the Americans is to be seen as working on reforms. But one way or another, "the Iraqi issue is forcing the issue of reform on everyone, and in some ways it is independent of what actually happens in Iraq," Mr. Abdulhamid said.
A sophisticated U.S. approach that uses both sticks and carrots with Syria, Iran and America's Arab allies could still shape a decent election in Iraq, but we have to get in gear right now, and be smart. Does this administration have anyone who knows how to play this game? Attention: Iraq is having an election. Elections are rare in this part of the world, so when they happen, everyone in the neighborhood tries to vote. We need to make sure our friends do as well.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.