This Week’s Question: Why Are We in Iraq?

The following quote about tracking terrorists, taken from an F.B.I. agent, has a wider application than he may have intended. The F.B.I. agent told the press: “If we don’t know for sure they’re going to do something, or not, we need to make sure that we prevent anything they may be planning, whether or not we know or don’t know about it.”

Who can argue with that? Who can understand it? Yet the same clarity limns the speech of the rest of the government. The whole bunch-Dubya, Condi, Colin, Rummy-talk nationally, talk locally, talk on the Sunday-morning shows, talk on the weekday-evening shows, talk in one-on-one interviews, talk through leaks, and the more they say, the less we understand.

What is going on in Iraq? They say it’s going fine, that we are winning hearts and minds twice as fast as the soldiers are getting killed. The reports sound encouraging. Every day, some segment of the Baghdad population gets to choose between receiving enough electricity to light a 40-watt light bulb for three-quarters of an hour or receiving two-thirds of a quart of drinking water, but not both. Schools are being painted, and maypoles are being danced around by little girls with flowers woven into their hair, though we can’t see them because their heads must be covered.

Progress is bursting out all over, or is it? The only rule which has held true throughout this long episode is that you may rely on there being a 50-50 chance that any media report is accurate. You get to pick what to believe.

Simultaneously, according to the newspapers, there are enormous strides forward and a big bug-out taking place. The aid workers-especially after the attack on the Red Cross on Oct. 27-are talking about packing up and getting the hell out of Iraq. The evacuation began in earnest weeks ago, after the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the mission, and 21 other people were killed. The assassination of these people and the attack on the Red Cross seemed doubly cruel and stupid because the United Nations and the Red Cross are on the side of the Iraqi people. Even though it appears that people who live in some Islamic countries use amputation as a form of punishment, why cut off the hand that’s feeding you?

Maybe Iraqis, or at least some Iraqis, don’t look at it that way. They may recall that the United Nations acted as the formal mechanism of the food sanctions which, it is said, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. As with most everything else connected with this great cockup, you cannot be certain about those numbers. Suffice it to say that extreme hardship resulted from the U.N. sanctions, and it’s not difficult to imagine a couple of Iraqis realizing that here was a whole building full of apparent big shots whose organization was responsible for the deaths and suffering.

Perhaps it was payback time. Or perhaps it was outside agitators, as the American government has suggested-but outside agitators are so easy to blame. Forty years ago in the American South, the sheriffs and mayors and newspaper editors blamed the civil-rights demonstrations on outside agitators. But in the larger history of upheavals, there have been outside agitators-and some pretty effective ones. Even though Lenin was, by birth, a Russian, he had been away from his country for so many years that when he slipped back home, he might as well have been an outside agitator.

Nevertheless, an outside agitator cannot get very far unless people are in a state of mind to be agitated. The contented are not going to listen to a guy from some other place when he tells them to go blow up the police station. Outside agitators have to have some serious sore of discontent to rub raw if they are going to succeed. Somebody is helping the outside agitators, if they were that; somebody is giving them a place to hide and food to eat, and not turning them over to the Americans.

Inside or outside, the agitators have got to be squashed. Otherwise, Iraq is on its way to becoming like Afghanistan. We are told the Afghan people are ever so grateful we have freed them from their harsh rulers, the fearful Taliban. But we still don’t dare to venture past the fortified camp which is Kabul, because the people living beyond the last NATO machine-gun emplacement may express their gratitude by slitting our American throats. Lately, a U.N. Security Council vote has given permission for the NATO forces to expand their reach to cover the whole country. Many a promise has been made, but it remains to be seen if they can be kept when, on sunny afternoons in Afghanistan, the bandits and the Taliban are out hunting for infidel heads.

It may not matter if the areas outside of Kabul are safe or dangerous for the humanitarian organizations to operate in, given that so little money is available for serious work. The same seems to be happening in Iraq. The billions of dollars earmarked for Iraq are not enough to make a dent.

Other rich nations have pledged token contributions, and that’s what they are-token. Why should the European Union countries give more? If Iraq goes kerplunk, it may not be on account of the terrorists, intransigent Baathists, guerrillas or outside agitators, but because America refuses to pony up serious money to cover the expenses of cleaning up its own mess.

So look at the United States and George Bush, whose eyes glistened when he said that he personally would take on the world one by one or in bunches, and look at where things are now. The present situation can bump and bang along as it is until somebody loses an election, or Mr. Bush can try and find another 50,000 or 100,000 troops and a couple of hundred billion dollars. If he goes that route, he might see a clutch of those blue states going red.

Or maybe not. Some people don’t think it’s money that’s needed. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times believes that playing rock music will get Iraq’s young people to take off their clothes and move their pelvises toward the democratic, not the procreative, process. Would that Mill and Montesquieu had lived long enough to discover the connection between lubricity and orderly self-rule, but Mr. Friedman has. He noted with glee that there is an Arab version of American Idol .

Assuming that rock music can’t get the job done, Mr. Bush has a temporary fall-back solution: He is recruiting mercenaries from wherever they can be found. The other day, I heard a reporter describing the arrival of some Polish troops at the Baghdad airport. She said they looked like fine bonnie lads, but they were wearing sneakers.