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Nicholas Kristof: Running for the exits

By Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-ed Columnist, New York Times


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As we consider how to shape our legacy in Iraq, it's worth taking a peek at Kuwaiti cereal boxes.

Special K is sold in Kuwait, but every box has a piece of white paper pasted over an image of a young woman exercising. It's not a sexy image, unless you've spent a month in the desert alone with a herd of camels, but it's still considered too explosive for Kuwaitis to handle.

For that matter, women themselves are still too much for Kuwait to handle. Twelve years after Americans lost their lives to liberate Kuwait, women still don't have the vote.

As for men, they can vote, but most political power is still firmly in the hands of the ruling Sabah family. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism has been on the rise, with more women wearing the veil, and for the past few years even university classes have been segregated by sex.

"Kuwait has taken something of a downward spiral," said Farah al-Nakib, a young U.S.-educated woman who wouldn't be caught dead in a veil. "It's become much more conservative and religious, and the influence of Saudi Arabia has become stronger. Kuwait had a great opportunity after the gulf war to take steps to create checks on the government, to reform education. But we let that slip by."

Americans fought the first gulf war with the best of intentions, and it was the right thing to do. But after the war, we lost interest in the area. So Saddam stayed in Iraq, Saudi Arabia again became a closed society, and Kuwait continued to amble along as a family-run country.

"For what had they died, those 390 Americans?" asks Rick Atkinson in his book about Gulf War I, "Crusade." He answers, perhaps too harshly: "The conflict had been waged on behalf of cheap oil, friendly monarchies and Washington's strategic goal of preventing the emergence of a hegemonic power inimical to America's interests in the Middle East."

In fairness, the U.S. did nudge the Kuwaiti rulers to revive the National Assembly, which had been suspended. Kuwait has become more politically open, with free speech and a free press. And its youths have a foot planted squarely in the 21st century: while Kuwaiti parents think their kids are off studying, they cruise the roads, flirting and pulling over to exchange phone numbers in a style that seems more California than Arabia.

But it would have been nice if we had helped Kuwait achieve something loftier, if we had nudged it to become a model for the Arab world in more than dating. It's now clear that we missed our chance.

President Bush seems less likely to make that mistake. He and his team include conservative idealists who want to leave the Middle East more democratic than ever before. Their intentions are honorable.

But they also have a limited attention span, and they seem inclined to rush out of Iraq.

President Bush is now reading Michael Beschloss's excellent history "The Conquerors," about how Franklin Roosevelt planned Germany's postwar future. The epigraph for the book is this assertion by Eisenhower in 1945: "The success of this occupation can only be judged 50 years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded."

That should be our test as well. The risk in Iraq is that despite good intentions, we'll become irritated and distracted and leave the job half-done, as we did after the first gulf war and after Afghanistan, when we refused to provide security outside Kabul.

In particular, Americans will be annoyed if they see benefits of freedom flowing to enemies of our values to Shiite clerics who favor an Islamic republic and want to cover up cereal boxes. In poor neighborhoods of Iraq, the heroes may turn out to be not pro-American elites who spent the Saddam years sipping sherry in London, but the Islamist heirs of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, who resisted Saddam and was executed in 1999 with nails driven through his head. If religious radicals seem to be gaining ground in Iraq, that would be all the more reason for the U.S. to stick around to try to nurture new democratic institutions. Instead, there will be political pressure in the U.S. for us to wash our hands of the mess and run for the exits.

So let's remember the missed opportunities of Kuwait as we work on Iraq. More than 150 Americans and Britons died in this Iraqi war, along with perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Democracy would be a worthy memorial. But if we pull out in haste and frustration, we will dishonor those dead.

Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.


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