Columnist Friedman addresses Iraqi reconstruction

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke about the prospect of democracy in post-war Iraq at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Thursday night.

More than 300 fans of the pundit packed the Tenleytown church to hear Friedman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, talk about his travels in the Middle East and promote his newest book, “Longitudes and Attitudes.” Politics and Prose bookstore sponsored the event.

While he initially opposed the war in Iraq, Friedman said the country’s transition from a totalitarian state to a democracy would transform the Middle East, which is rife with dictatorships.

“As you know, I initially disagreed with the war in Iraq 52 percent to 49 percent because I realized there was something quite irrational going on,” he said. “On views that liberals support, I’m usually at the forefront. But with Iraq, I knew the thing was much more complicated than the New York Times or other liberals chose to acknowledge.”

Friedman, who visited Iraq several times during and after the war, said he was surprised at the decrepit conditions in which many Iraqis find themselves.

“I have never seen a Mideast nation like this,” he said. “People live in mud huts and in sewers. It’s Babylon with electricity. We defeated the Flintstones.”

“We inherited Bedrock and then Saddam’s people started to reconnect…people asked me, ‘How come you fly tanks into here but not electrical generators,” he added.

At that point the crowd burst into laughter, but Friedman soon returned to the main point of the evening – Iraqi democracy.

“We have to get Iraq right…we have to get them on some kind of democratic track…this is not Vietnam and it certainly isn’t the West Bank,” he said. “But they do want us out of there. As the polls have been showing, though, they want us to stay until we finish the job.”

Many in the crowd were critical of President Bush’s policies in Iraq.

“You don’t want to know,” said John O’Neill of Friendship, Md. when asked his opinion of the Bush administration. “We should not be in Iraq…I thought this is what we had the United Nations for. I’m pro-UN. I don’t see any harm in letting them have more of a say.”

“I’m very much in opposition to the Bush administration,” said attendee Jaime Yassif, rolling her eyes. “I think right now we’re dealing with the consequences of poor forethought regarding the war’s aftermath.”

Friedman also lamented the violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the breakdown of peace talks.

“If you solve your disagreements with Jews by suicide bombings…it’s madness,” he said.

After speaking for almost 90 minutes, Friedman talked about the partisan squabbles over Iraq’s reconstruction.

“We have to be morally serious,” he said. “For liberals this means to say some things are true even if George Bush says them. One of those things is that you must build democracy from ground up.”

“For conservatives, (it is) to stop thinking we can engage in the largest nation-building project ever without pissing off every other country

around us…the world our children inherit is going to greatly be shaped by the events that happen over the next year or so in Iraq,” he said.

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