Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Tom Friedman has been writing

Tom Friedman has been writing from Iraq. He has discovered in his travels that Iraq wasn't much of a military match for the US. Some global threat, right? But his most interesting report was of a General's response to his question, "can we do Iraq right." "It is doable," the General said, "I just don't know if we can do it." Woops, someone is going to be hearing from The Donald, and I don't mean Trump. An honest answer, to an honestly posed question. Sadly, not a surprising one for those of us who have been critical of this venture.

We are really out of sorts these days from terrorists with car bombs to a thus far incurable virus that terrifies. Both lethal. Mad cow disease has shown up in Canada. Not that I eat beef any more, but some of my best friends still do. It is raining and cool again in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Ugly winter, absentee Spring? Even the weather is against us. And that is only the tip of the ice berg. I've gotten into the habit of turning on BBC World at 7 AM rather than the silliness of Matt and Katie and their Network counterparts or the drama-as-news offered by CNN. Guess what, a lot is happening out there in the world, each and every day. Millions are dying in African Civil strife, floods are ravishing the unprotected and there is big trouble out there again in the environs of Indonesia. Much to address, much to do. The question is, "can we do it?"

Of course we can't. Even if we had the resources, we couldn't. Even if we had the will, which we don't. Why is it that our media can't report more than a single story on any given day despite 24/7 news? It's ADD, stupid. And it isn't only the attention deficit of the public (a learned attribute, thank you), but of our government. Moreover, much as I hate to admit this, it's a bi-partisan problem. We love this new kind of antiseptic fighting, mostly from the air with limited face to face encounter. But in a larger sense, we like it quick and clean much as we do a good quarterly report and an uptick in the price of our shares. We love the party, but we don't particularly like setting it up and we certainly don't like the cleanup after which, under the best of circumstances, dirties the hands.

We're powerful. We're rich (even if not quite as rich as we were under those tax and spend Democrats). But we're too devoted to the good life to be great scholars. We don't really understand what we see as arcane cultures and we're definitely not linguists (myself included). "It's all Greek to us," we say with a cute little smile and George Bush wink (perhaps smirk is more accurate) thinking that our ignorance is a badge of superiority and honor. What the hell, let's just continue looking inward – freedom fries today, freedom dressing, freedom potato salad tomorrow. Did I mention that we were powerful and rich?

Transformation is a tough business. Ask any chief executive who has tried to transform a private company; ask the guys running the US Postal Service. Sears may have a softer side, but it's hard goods at the core. Getting service at the Post Office is still like standing in line for that Welfare check that the clerk doesn't see as our entitlement. We're certainly not "the customer" here. Transforming a country with a different history, culture and set of mores is a tall order indeed. As much as we might want to pay tribute to the late Frank Sinatra, we can't keep on telling the world to "do it my way." We're clearly comfortable with locals who were lucky enough to attend our universities and speak our language decently, but that alone doesn't qualify them for leadership. In the end, as much as they can benefit from communicating with us, they can't function without being the soul mates of their own people. Can we live with that? In theory, of course. Actually? I'm not at all sure nor is Tom Friedman's General.

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