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What we’re wasting in Iraq

DALIAN, China — It’s nice to be in a country where Iraq is never mentioned. It’s just a little unnerving when that country is America’s biggest geopolitical and economic rival these days: China.

I heard China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, address an international conference here in Dalian, and what impressed me most was how boring it was — a straightforward recitation of the economic progress China has made in the last two decades and the economic, political and environmental challenges it still faces.

How nice it must be, I thought, to be a great power and be almost entirely focused on addressing your own domestic problems?

No, I have not gone isolationist. America has real enemies that China does not, and therefore we have to balance a global security role in places like the Middle East with domestic demands.

But something is out of balance with America today. Looking at the world from here, it is hard not to feel that China has spent the last six years training for the Olympics while we’ve spent ourselves into debt on iPods and al-Qaida.

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After 9/11, we tried to effect change in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world by trying to build a progressive government in Baghdad. There was, I believed, a strategic and moral logic for that. But the strategy failed, for a million different reasons, and now it is time to recognize that and focus on how we insulate ourselves from the instability of that world — by having a real energy policy, for starters — how we protect our security interests in more sustainable ways and how we get back to developing our own house.

By now it should be clear that Iraq is going to be what it is going to be. We’ve never had sufficient troops there to shape Iraq in our own image. We can’t go on betting so many American soldiers and resources that Iraqis will one day learn to live together on their own — without either having to be bludgeoned by Saddam or baby-sat by us.

So either we get help or get out. That is, if President Bush believes staying in Iraq can still make a difference, then he needs to muster allies because the American people are not going to sustain alone a long-shot bet that something decent can still be built in Baghdad.

If the president can’t get help, then he has to initiate a phased withdrawal: now. Because the opportunity cost this war is exacting on our country and its ability to focus on anything else is out of all proportion to what might still be achieved in Iraq by our staying, with too few troops and too few friends.

Iraqis can add. The surge has brought more calm to Iraq largely because the mainstream Iraqi Sunnis finally calculated that they have lost and that both the pro-al-Qaida Iraqi Sunnis and the radical Shiites are more of a threat to them than the Americans they had been shooting at.

The minute we start withdrawing, all Iraqis will calculate their interests. They may decide they want more blood baths, but there is just as much likelihood that they will eventually find equilibrium.

I have not been to Dalian in three years. It is not just a nice city for China. It is a beautiful city of wide avenues, skyscrapers, green spaces, software parks and universities.

The president of Dalian University of Technology, Jinping Ou, told me his new focus now is on energy research and that he has 100 doctoral students dealing with different energy problems and that the Chinese government has just decided to open its national energy innovation research center here.

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Listening to him, my mind drifted back to Iraq, where I was two weeks ago and where I heard a U.S. officer in Baghdad tell this story:

His unit was on a patrol in a Sunni neighborhood when it got hit by an IED. Fortunately, the bomb exploded too soon and no one was hurt. His men jumped out and followed the detonation wire, which led 1,500 feet into the neighborhood.

A U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was in the area and alerted the U.S. soldiers that a man was fleeing the scene on a bicycle. The soldiers asked the Black Hawk for help, and it swooped down and used its rotor blades to blow the insurgent off his bicycle, with a giant "whoosh," and the U.S. soldiers captured him.

That image of a $6 million high-tech U.S. helicopter with a highly trained pilot blowing an insurgent off his bicycle captures the absurdity of our situation in Iraq. The great Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi said it best: "Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes."

That is where we are in Iraq. We’re wasting our brains. We’re wasting our people. We’re wasting our future. China is not.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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