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Tom Friedman’s Iraq Journal

May 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now our last words on Iraq tonight; they’re from “New York Times” columnist Tom Friedman, who has just returned from Iraq. Once again, welcome home and welcome here, tom.

TOM FRIEDMAN: Good to be here with you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what the colonel told Elizabeth Farnsworth now that the clock is ticking on U.S. help for these folks?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Very much so. I could quote back to you, Jim, something one his commanders said to me, which is we’ve got a couple months here and if we don’t start delivering better services for the Iraqi people, it’s going to be a long hot summer in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Tell us now — we’ll get back to that in a moment. Tell us where you went. You were there for a week. Where did you go?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I was actually there for five days. I first flew, actually, from Kuwait to Baghdad, with an American army officer, and then Baghdad to Tikrit; Tikrit to Baghdad one of Saddam’s palaces, back to Baghdad, then back to Kuwait. Then I got a car and a driver, since I don’t exactly know the roads and drove from Kuwait to Basra, Basra to Najaf, the Shia holy place, Najaf to Baghdad and then Baghdad all the way back to Kuwait, so I got to see it from the air and the ground, which was enormously revealing.

JIM LEHRER: In general, we’ll get to specifics in a moment, in general what was the thing that struck you the most about what is going on on the ground there now?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Two things really struck me, one is how broken Iraq was as a place and Iraqis as a people. It was much more economically devastated, here I’m not talking about things the United States did during the war. When you fly over, you see farm fields that are half tended. When you drive, you see buildings — people were living in mud huts. As I said the other day, it looked like Babylon with electricity poles outside the major cities. I certainly never realized just how devastatingly poor Saddam had kept this country, thanks to his the tyranny and the wars that he involved them in and then sanctions. The second impression –.

JIM LEHRER: The U.N. sanctions?

TOM FRIEDMAN: The U.N. sanctions, which really impoverished people. It really stuck me Iraqis look unkempt, Jim; they looked like people who just stopped taking care of themselves, because they didn’t have the resources to do it. What struck me also, though, was that all the buildings, all the infrastructure, all the factories, all the power plants that we spared with our smart bombs during the war, were absolutely stripped bare by dumb looters. What we saved from the air down were absolutely stripped from the ground up by the looters. It was the day of the locust, it was like a swarm of locusts.

JIM LEHRER: Did you get any understanding as to why they looted so extensively and so ferociously?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I think a couple things, one is their sheer resentment and revenge at a regime that had looted them for all these years, that was one factor. The second was I think sheer deprivation and desperation for food, and for anything they could sell, and you see these bizarre pieces of equipment on sale in the looters’ market; it’s clear people just went into a power plant or an oil facility and took any piece they could lift and then puts it on sale. And the third thing is deliberate sabotage is clearly going on by remnants of the old regime.

JIM LEHRER: Now, to get us to some specifics and following up on Elizabeth’s report, about the efforts of the American troops to try to get things working again, what’s the problem?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, I think the problem is several things. One is they originally, I think, went into this war assuming that they were going to decapitate the Iraqi army -

JIM LEHRER: They meaning the United States.

TOM FRIEDMAN: — the United States was going to decapitate the Iraqi army, decapitate the Iraqi government as it were, then quickly come in and run Iraq through the army and the government, minus the Ba’ath, you know, the Saddam people.

JIM LEHRER: Get rid of them.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: And what happened instead is that the whole thing collapsed. And suddenly, we found ourselves in control of a country with no institutions, and where just imagine, Jim, a ministry, pick the ministry of education, I don’t know, pick any ministry. It’s not complete empty. It’s completely looted of desks, of light bulbs, of window frames, of all the records. Basra University, which I drove through, completely looks like a tornado hit it. I looked at it, reminded me of one of those pictures of the Midwest tornadoes last week.

JIM LEHRER: Why would they loot the university, did it matter whether it was a university?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Didn’t matter; it could have been any building. You drive out of Baghdad and it’s clear there are car factories, I don’t know if they’re factories or assembly plants or whatever, and not only the windows are gone, the window frames are gone. At Basra University people are digging up the cable now, selling it for wire.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of cables?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I think it’s copper wire. In fact, I read a story on the wire the other day, there’s a glut of copper now on the market there. So people are literally taking anything they could sell because they were that desperate. But what that means, Jim, is we are stating not just from zero now, we’re starting from below zero. There are no real institutions, and the institutions that existed are really empty — so many records. So we’re really, we don’t have enough people there. You saw from Elizabeth’s things, we’re taking from one town to send to another, here you have an army officer’s 300 people lining up for different services and they’ve been sent to another town. You do not get a sense when you’re there that we had a Plan B. We had Plan A. Plan A collapsed with the Iraqi government and army. And you just don’t feel that there was a clear Plan B.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have the feeling, because you were just there, do have you the feeling that they now understand it’s time for a Plan B?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. You talk to officers there, military people, and they know that we need a bigger, more coherent effort. But, I hope it’s coming. This is still, my sense, because it’s good news/bad news here. You could see it in Elizabeth’s piece, which is that the bad news is how devastated people are. The good news is, good news in inverted comas, is how little it would take to improve their lives: A little security, okay, some money in people’s pockets, get the basic economy going.

JIM LEHRER: The colonel said he needed cash.

TOM FRIEDMAN: One of our generals said to me when I was there, you know they found $600 million behind a wall in Baghdad, he said you know what happened, they took that $600 million, they took it to Kuwait and they put it under OMB rules. Now what we need is.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.

TOM FRIEDMAN: He said how am I going to fight my way through that? We need to put that money in a helicopter, fly from one end of Iraq to the other and dump it out, okay, put it in people’s pockets, get the economy going. All we need is to get this on an upward slope. You see how the people react to our troops there? They’re really not, for the most part they’re not hostile. These people are broken. And if we come and they perceive that we’re there to make their lives better, we’ll have time. If we don’t, if they perceive otherwise, we’ll have real problems.

JIM LEHRER: Is it strictly a manpower question?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I think –.

JIM LEHRER: From the U.S. point of view?

TOM FRIEDMAN: It’s a manpower question at the services level. It’s a political question of what kind of Iraq politically are we going to construct? This is really complicated. One of the things that really struck me when I was there, I met with some of the Shiite groups — leaders that had come back from Iran, one in particular, Bucker Akim, who is the main one, I met with Chalabi’s people, I didn’t meet with him, he’s the Iraqi National Congress, and I met with one of the Kurdish leaders. What struck me about the exile groups is they’re full of energy, they’ve been on the outside, they know how politics works. One of them said I have a problem, I call the Pentagon the other day. So the Iraqis themselves, they have no idea how to do this, because they have not had a horizontal conversation. What struck me about — in the Iraqis who were there is they don’t really know each other, they have not been allowed to have a horizontal conversation.

JIM LEHRER: The Shiites don’t know the Sunnis – don’t know the Kurds -

TOM FRIEDMAN: They had a vertical top down monologue for 30 years. So you got these really active exiles, then you got all the other Iraqis there. Now, if those exiles can sink roots, you know, among the Iraqi population, I say God bless them, because they’ve got plans, they’ve got vision, you know, whatnot. I do think they do have a democratic impulse for the most part. But if they can’t, I don’t know what kind of stew we’re going to have. It’s not clear to me that we have a clear idea how we’re going to bring all these chemicals together into one social compact.

JIM LEHRER: And, meanwhile, back to the ticking clock — clicking clock. How quickly is it ticking?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I think it’s ticking, I wouldn’t exaggerate it, because I do believe, I go back to this point, Jim. If we can keep this moving at an upward slope, every degree upward is more time we’ll have.

JIM LEHRER: More lights coming on, more clean water?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Exactly. More money in people’s pockets, the air conditioning working, simple things, and then people suddenly see the economy coming back. And these are a broken, broken people. And that’s why it’s almost, I would say to you, we have to go out of our way to get this wrong, but so far we’re well on our way to doing that. We’re too slow off the mark. I would be flooding this place with police, with troops, with money, because Jim, we only have one chance to make a good first impression. And you know what else struck me driving around, that the one new thing I saw on sale in the streets? Satellite dishes, and guess what, when they get those satellite dishes going, they ain’t going to be watching Fox TV. They’re going to be watching al Jazeera, LBC, MBC, Arabic, and they’re going to see Iraq reflected and the American occupation there reflected in an Arab mirror. We want when that happens that what is reflected is something really positive.

JIM LEHRER: Tom Friedman, good to see you again. Welcome home again. Thank you.

TOM FRIEDMAN: Thanks, Jim.