Since 9/11, we've seen so much depraved violence we don't notice anymore when we hit a new low. Monday's attacks in Baghdad were a new low. Just stop for one second and contemplate what happened: A suicide bomber, driving an ambulance loaded with explosives, crashed into the Red Cross office and blew himself up on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. This suicide bomber was not restrained by either the sanctity of the Muslim holy day or the sanctity of the Red Cross. All civilizational norms were tossed aside. This is very unnerving. Because the message from these terrorists is: "There are no limits. We have created our own moral universe, where anything we do against Americans or Iraqis who cooperate with them is okay."
What to do? The first thing is to understand who these people are. There is this notion being peddled by Europeans, the Arab press and the antiwar left that "Iraq" is just Arabic for Vietnam, and we should expect these kinds of attacks from Iraqis wanting to "liberate" their country from "U.S. occupation." These attackers are the Iraqi Vietcong.
Hogwash. The people who mounted the attacks on the Red Cross are not the Iraqi Vietcong. They are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge _ a murderous band of Saddam Hussein loyalists and al-Qaida nihilists, who are not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis.
Have you noticed that these bombers never say what their political agenda is or whom they represent? They don't want Iraqis to know who they really are. A vast majority of Iraqis would reject them, because these bombers either want to restore Baathism or install bin Ladenism.
Let's get real. What the people who blew up the Red Cross and the Iraqi police fear is not that we're going to permanently occupy Iraq. They fear that we're going to permanently change Iraq. The great irony is that the Baathists and Arab dictators are opposing the United States in Iraq because _ unlike many leftists _ they understand exactly what this war is about. They understand that U.S. power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo, as it was in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Arab world during the Cold War. They understand that this is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the United States has ever launched _ a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.
Most of the troubles we have encountered in Iraq (and will in the future) are not because of "occupation" but because of "empowerment." The U.S. invasion has overturned a whole set of vested interests, particularly those of Iraq's Sunni Baathist establishment, and begun to empower instead a whole new set of actors: Shiites, Kurds, non-Baathist Sunnis, women and locally elected officials and police. The Qaida nihilists, the Saddamists, and all the Europeans and Arab autocrats who had a vested interest in the old status quo are threatened by this.
Many liberals oppose this war because they can't believe that someone as radically conservative as George W. Bush could be mounting such a radically liberal war. Some, though, just don't believe the Bush team will do it right.
The latter has been my concern. Can this administration, whose national security team is so divided, effectively stay the course in Iraq? Has the president's audacity in waging such a revolutionary war outrun his ability to articulate what it's about and to summon Americans for the sacrifices victory will require? Can the president really be a successful radical liberal on Iraq, while being such a radical conservative everywhere else _ refusing to dismiss one of his own generals who insults Islam, turning a deaf ear to hints of corruption infecting the new Baghdad government as it's showered with aid dollars, calling on reservists and their families to bear all the burdens of war while slashing taxes for the rich, and undertaking the world's biggest nation-building project with few real allies?
I don't know. But here's what I do know: If Bush doesn't treat the next year as his second term, when he must do all the right things in Iraq without regard to politics, it is the only second term he's going to see.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service