The test of America's patience has just begun


THE SLOW FUTURE OF IRAQ Now comes the hard part. In Iraq, the fast-and-simple part is over. Now comes the slow-and-complicated part. Here in the United States, in the land of the 24-second shot clock and the 30-second news hole, we’re not so good at slow-and-complicated. We’d rather just change the channel, turn to another game. The war in Iraq has been, so far, simple and fast. Simple: Saddam is bad, we’re good. Fast: Just three weeks of high-tech bombing, and we get to topple the statues. (One is tempted to compare this statue-toppling to the tipping of the loser’s king at the end of a chess game, except the scene in Baghdad, so carefully posed and mechanical, all winches and camera angles, had none of that kind of elegance. Donald Rumsfeld, predictably, compared the few dozen Iraqis who watched an American truck drag down Saddam’s statue in the center of Baghdad to the thousands of Germans who hammered in a frenzy of freedom at the Berlin Wall in 1989. In this comparison, he insulted everyone. Donald Rumsfeld, it’s becoming clear, even to his friends, is an insulting man. He keeps things simple, though, and Americans like simple.) But now Iraq gets complicated, and things go slow. Some will point to today’s scenes of Iraqis greeting American troops with plastic flowers and say, "This is the future." Others will point to the scenes of mass looting and violent vengeance and say, "This is the future." We Americans want the future to be now. But the future in Iraq is still a long way off. When it comes, we Americans will almost certainly have changed the channel. (What channel was Afghanistan on, anyway? I don’t remember.) The future in Iraq will come slow because there are so many players, each playing a different game. The Kurds fight the Iraqis. The Turks fight the Kurds. The Kurds fight themselves. The Shi-ites fight the Sunnis. The Americans, the British, the Republican Guard, the fedayeen, the Baathists, the irregulars, the suicide bombers, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Arabs, the Bedouin, the returning exiles, and all the various village and regional clans--all those players, all playing different games. There’s the law-and-order game: Who will police Iraq now that the police are gone? Who will control the interim government? (We Americans hate "interims." We want the finished product, now.) There’s the democracy game: When will there be free elections? Who will be allowed to run for office? What if fundamentalist Shi-ites win? There’s the rebuilding game: Can Oxfam and Unicef get enough clean water to Basra’s children to prevent epidemics of dysentery and cholera? Can the International Red Cross get medicine to Baghdad’s hospitals? Does Iraqi oil pay for Iraq’s rebuilding or do the Americans who bombed it do the paying? Do only American and British companies get that rebuilding money? Do only contributors to the Bush election campaign get that money? There’s the global power game: Does the U.S. now get to use Iraq as a base--and a precedent--to invade Syria and Iran, too? Has the war injured the terrorists--or inflamed them? Will the U.S. victory bring secular democracy to the Middle East or more entrenched fundamentalism? Will Russia and France serve as the core magnet of a third major power in the world, a Eurocentric third weight to balance against China and the U.S., or will they slide into impotence and irrelevance? It will be a long time before we know the outcomes of these games. Almost certainly, we Americans will have stopped paying attention by then. (Of course, there are some games we never pay attention to in the first place: for example, the game in central Africa that has killed over 2 million people in the last decade and left thousands of women and children with their hands hacked off--a half-century-long game far too slow and complicated for our attention span.) We Americans love the 100-yard dash. (The 10,000-meter run? Well, we leave that to the Ethiopians and Algerians.) We love the slam dunk and the quick-launched three-pointer. (Working the shot clock while waiting for the give-and-go? Well, we leave that to the pointed heads in the Ivy League, who are hardly typical Americans.) We want our quick buck, our Speed Pass, our fast food, and our overnight dry cleaning. We are, in other words, adolescents. Our impatience is our great national virtue and our curse. We have energy and verve and muscle, and we make things happen fast. It’s why we are the greatest inventors the world has ever seen. The French will take hours to prepare a meal, and then take hours to eat it. The Germans will sit not just for a three-hour opera, but for a twelve-hour Ring Cycle. The Russians--well, the Russians have been waiting in lines for centuries, and a four-hour game of chess is for them a pleasure. The Russians and the French and the Germans, you see, are grownups. But we are adolescents, and we hate to wait. Some things, however, demand the long wait and the long-range view: great wines, for example, and global warming. And the wisdom of age. And world history. As for Iraq, I’d suggest we all just stay tuned, but I don’t think we will.

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