On Listening

THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times

There was a headline that grabbed me in The Times on Saturday. It said, "Cheney Lashes Out at Critics of Policy on Iraq."

"Wow," I thought, "that must have been an interesting encounter." Then I read the fine print. Mr. Cheney was speaking to 200 invited guests at the conservative Heritage Foundation — and even they were not allowed to ask any questions. Great. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein issue messages from their caves through Al Jazeera, and Mr. Cheney issues messages from his bunker through Fox. America is pushing democracy in Iraq, but our own leaders won't hold a real town hall meeting or a regular press conference.

Out of fairness, my newspaper feels obligated to run such stories. But I wish we had said to the V.P.: If you're going to give a major speech on Iraq to an audience limited to your own supporters and not allow any questions, that's not news — that's an advertisement, and you should buy an ad on the Op-Ed page.

Such an approach would serve both journalism and the nation, because it might actually force this administration to listen to someone other than itself. And learning to listen may be the only way the Bush team is going to muster and sustain the support it needs to succeed in Iraq.

To begin with, listening might actually force the Bush team to frame its vision of U.S. foreign policy and its rationale for the Iraq war on our hopes for the world, not just our fears of it. Every other word out of this administration's mouth now is "terror" or "terrorism." We have stopped exporting hope, the most important commodity America has. We now export only fear, so we end up importing everyone else's fears right back.

Yes, America faces real threats, and this administration, to its credit, has been serious about confronting them. But America also has many more friends, actual and potential, and nurturing them is also part of our national security. We cannot spend so much time talking about our enemies that we forget to listen to our friends, because without them, ultimately, we cannot win either a war of terrorism or a war of ideas.

Had this ingrown administration ever exposed itself to people even mildly opposed to its policies, let alone foreigners, it might have avoided some of its most egregious errors. Had it listened to its own Army chief of staff, who had served in Bosnia, it might have put more troops into Iraq, as he advocated. Had it listened to its own State Department, it might not have recklessly disbanded the Iraqi Army without having enough U.S. troops to fill the security vacuum.

Listening is also a sign of respect, and it is amazing how much people will allow you to say to them, by way of criticism, if you just bother to go listen to them first. I heard Richard Brodhead, the dean of Yale College, give some very smart advice along these lines to incoming freshmen the other day. He should have been talking to the Bush team.

"Above all," Dean Brodhead told the students, "don't limit your associations to people who agree with you. . . . I read that American political parties are concluding that the old electoral strategy of first playing to the core adherents and true believers, then reaching out to the independent or unpersuaded, might now be passé, and that parties will succeed best by continuing to appeal to the party base. This may be good politics, but I doubt it's good for the quality of thought that will result from politics. Who do we suppose will be able to deal more constructively with the challenges of our time: people who have only ever experienced preaching to the converted, or people who tested their understanding against the countervailing understandings of others?"

Thankfully, there is one group of people the Bush team is listening to: Iraq's silent majority. Ironically, Iraq is the one place in the world where the Bush team has chosen not to become obsessed with terrorists, not to focus exclusively on them and their noise, but to just keep on building a better Iraq for Iraqis — the only way to counter terrorism in the long run — despite the bombs bursting in air.

Unfortunately, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — where some really sick terrorists claimed three U.S. lives yesterday — the Bush team has decided to fall in behind Ariel Sharon's failed strategy of only listening to the terrorists and postponing any initiatives until they are all defeated. So the only voice we hear there is that of the terrorists. No alternative reality is being built to smother or counter them, and that's just what the terrorists want.