John D. Negroponte is expected to be the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Jim Grossfeld recently unearthed pages from the future journal of the ambitious diplomat:
As the jet entered Iraqi airspace, I felt humbled by the enormity of the task before me, but almost giddy over the possibilities. With all the turmoil of the recent weeks, I wasn't sure what to make of the president's sending me here as ambassador. Now I know he's presented me with the greatest gift of my career.
W. plainly understands that this posting is no place for a diplomat who's squeamish about mixing it up from time to time. Some of my colleagues just don't get that. All I know is that had I sat idly by in the 1980s, the people of Honduras might all be working on banana collectives or imprisoned in jungle gulags making Hacky Sacks for UNICEF.
That why I am especially grateful that Paul Wolfowitz suggested I bring the very savvy Christopher Hitchens with me as my aide-de-camp. He is a kindred spirit, even if a slightly bohemian one.
With the plane beginning its approach into Baghdad, I told Hitch that, from the air, the city looks like a Phoenix in utero. Sure, our jet may be drawing some small-arms fire now, but wasn't the Arizona Territory lawless and violent in its time? Go there now and Phoenix is a dazzling metropolis with glistening office towers, beautiful shopping malls, domed stadiums, great golfing, fine dining, Starbucks, etc. A real tourist mecca, I tell him (ha ha).
"Damned insightful," said Hitch. "Where the remnants of left are fixated on the mirage of failure, you quite properly see a distant oasis."
What a way with words that Hitch has! If only we were playing on the same team back when I was in Tegucigalpa.
Tonight, though, I'm not thinking of the past but only the future. Can I succeed in helping to lift this once-great civilization up by its bootstraps? Can I help these people to realize their destiny? This is the great challenge I face.
But for now I am just one more set of "boots on the ground" -- or, in the case of Hitch, "sandals in the sand."
What a jokester!
Our decision to delay autonomy for Iraq's new government wasn't greeted at all in the sprit with which it was intended. I tried to explain to the governing council that rather than seeing the glass as nine-tenths empty, they could see it as one-tenth full. Still, as you might expect, some balked long and loud. What a bad-tempered lot! Personally, I think some of my Foggy Bottom “colleagues” may be stirring the pot a bit, but I have no proof.
However, in a show of good faith, the POTUS has given me the OK to turn over the nation's postal service for full Iraqi control. W. has taken to calling this “Iraqization.” Hitch seems skeptical about using the phrase and warns me not to say it in public. Damn glad Hitch is here.
As the proverb goes, "Nothing succeeds like success." But how can success occur where the ingredients for it are in such short supply?
I know the Iraqis share the same aspirations as free people everywhere: the desire to raise their families, worship God, advance their education, choose their own leaders, invest wisely, freely trade with their neighbors, purchase vacation property, etc. But among the many crimes perpetrated by the Baathists is that they robbed this parched land of so much of its entrepreneurial spirit.
It's not unlike what happened to New York City -- minus the torture, imprisonment, and genocide, of course.
Take, for example, the meeting Hitch and I had this morning with the curator of Iraq's national museum. He's a fine fellow who speaks English well. However, he remains stubbornly wedded to the ideology of the nanny state.
Busy as we are here, he was still grousing over America's "failure" to respond to the (much exaggerated) looting of the museum last year. Naturally he believes it is up to us to "compensate" it for its losses. That would have been easy, but we came up with a better idea: an innovative public-private partnership that would both support the museum and share its riches with art lovers the world over.
I told him that, instead of the government throwing money at his museum, we had located a wonderful new patron for it: Pier 1Imports.
I carefully explained that Pier 1 would both help rebuild damaged sections of the museum and reproduce looted objects, not only for display but also for resale worldwide through its stores (and, of course, its Web site). Pier 1 would naturally have naming rights for the refurbished museum and the franchise to operate the expanded gift shop at the museum, as well as a new one at the airport.
You'd have thought I'd just insulted his grandmother!
Without even a "thank you" for the ‘golden goose” we were offering him, the curator began ranting about how we “want to give the treasures of Mesopotamia to a merchant of tiki masks and giant wooden utensils!"
Hitch and I tried to assure him that Pier 1 was really quite upscale now, but it was of little use. He stormed out, muttering something about rattan chairs and cursing me, President Bush, and, of course, his American liberators.
"Given his druthers, he'd no doubt rather see the museum walls covered with Diego Rivera knockoffs," Hitch wryly observed.
With the help of the ever-resourceful Ahmad Chalabi (or, as I call him, Mr. C), the new Iraqi postal system is up and running.
Though some have questioned Mr. C's intentions, I've found him to be a straight-talking patriot (in stark contrast to some of our team back at Foggy Bottom). Unlike the governing-council members who still seem to worship at the altars of Marx and Lenin, Mr. C instinctively appreciates the value of partnering with the private sector -- and partner he does!
Using his business acumen, Mr. C arranged for Iraq's postal system to actually become a part of UPS. It goes without saying that when Iraq's new postal workers finally hit the streets, they looked more than snappy in their brown uniforms and armored brown trucks!
Today Mr. C dropped by to show me the designs for Iraq's first commemorative postage stamps. Though I'm no student of philately, I was impressed with their beauty and diversity. They included a series on Iraqi sports (soccer, etc.) Iraqi wildlife (goats, etc.), United Nations Day (as if it deserves a stamp!), and, of course, a handsome stamp honoring President Bush (him on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln -- my idea!).
However, I did have concerns about two stamps. One honored Khaled al-Islambouli, the now-dead assassin of Anwar Sadat. It was one of those extra-big stamps that you don't have to lick. It showed him in his prison cell, holding up a copy of the Koran with the words "I killed Egypt's pharaoh" along the top. The other was a smaller stamp honoring Jim Morrison and the Doors.
Are these the right images for the new Iraq, I asked? Mr. C explained that he didn't care for those stamps either, but that they were meant for foreign collectors and would help bring capital into the country (always thinking, that Mr. C!).
I gave him my OK but asked him to try to use a picture of Jim Morrison with his shirt on. He said he'd take care of it. Good man!
There are 170 different newspapers in print in this country. Even the communists have one, for Christ's sake! Does anyone say "thank you”? Of course not. But we close down just one of them and the country goes bat-shit for weeks!
As usual, the governing council meeting today was about as productive as the UN. If you put some of these guys in French suits and gave them baguettes they'd fit right in.
The low point was when I brought up our initiative for the greater Middle East. All I had to do was mention the "I" word and an imam stood up, took off his damn shoe, slung it at me, and cursed me as a “Zionist puppet.” Hitch chuckled, but I hardly saw the humor.
Then, to make a bad situation worse, a few minutes later another imam starts lecturing me about Sharia law, and Hitch chimes in to say, “You know, what's holding this country back to begin with is all this God crap!”
You can imagine how that went over! Katie, bar the door!
I was fuming by the time we climbed into the Humvee for the trip back to the Green Zone. Hitch apologized. As well he should have.
Sometimes, just when you think things are going from bad to worse, something comes along that makes it better. That's how it was when I had my regular lunch with Mr. C.
Never one to shy away from new and innovative ideas, Mr. C proposed what may have been his most visionary yet: Six Flags Over Babylon (SFOB), the first water theme park in the Middle East!
The Iraqi people, he explained, long for three things: respect from the Arab world, global recognition of their ancient heritage, and recreation. SFOB, he said, speaks to all three.
“The rides will, in themselves, be a tribute to Iraq's past,” said Mr. C, as he showed me an artist's conception of a 700-foot replica of the Ziggurat of Ur that he said would be “the greatest of all roller coasters.”
Another drawing showed what he described as a miniature Persian Gulf, where youngsters would carefully maneuver supertanker paddleboats and miniature cargo ships between mines and Spanish patrol boats.
Yet another drawing depicted a ride in which the god Marduk takes visitors on a tour of ancient Babylon accompanied by his “helpers” Daniel, Ezekiel, and Ezra.
Mr. C said that the most stirring feature of SFOB would be its re-creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
“Imagine a small city made entirely of flowers and plants,” he said. “Kind of like the Rose Bowl parade, only it doesn't move.”
And, as if anticipating my next question, he told me that he he's already lined up Frank's Nursery as a sponsor.
Hitch, ever the pragmatist, asked whether Mr. C wasn't at all concerned about the availability of water and adequate security.
Mr. C said he had already considered that and proposed locating SFOB in the newly restored swamp area south of Baghdad.
“Think of the jobs!” he beamed.
Security, he shrugged, was a more complicated issue. Given the threat posed by Baath Party loyalists and outside extremists, protecting SFOB could require a commitment of several thousand troops. Maybe more.
Hitch and I huddled and talked over the plan, but we still gave Mr. C the thumbs-up.
After all, we didn't come to Iraq just to rid the world of an evil dictator, but to show this embattled region what a truly free people could achieve.
Based in Washington, D.C., Jim Grossfeld is a veteran speechwriter and public-affairs advisor for Democratic officials and labor leaders.