Dollars to dinars

October 02, 2003

A RIOT ERUPTED outside a Baghdad police station yesterday among demonstrators who were angry because they had paid bribes to get hired as police officers, but still hadn't gotten the jobs they said they'd been promised. They wanted their money's worth.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Senate Appropriations Committee had just finished wrapping up the $87 billion bill to provide security and begin rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan. Included in the many provisions of that bill is $290 million to pay the salaries for Iraq's spanking-new American-created police force.

Here is a tidy illustration of some of the snares the United States will face in its nation-building program. Is the $290 million going to be blithely used to support a corrupt police department? (And don't suppose those Iraqi rioters would have paid bribes for just any job -- in that part of the world, they know that a cop can live on Easy Street.) Or, more breathtakingly, is the $290 million part of a grandly optimistic plan to rework Iraqi culture to the point that baksheesh no longer exists? That's a tall order. But how much murky reality is America in fact prepared to tackle?

Now, multiply the police salaries by a factor of nearly 80, and that's how much money the White House wants to spend ($20.3 billion out of the total package) as a first installment on the reconstruction of Iraq. Then multiply the complications by about the same amount.

The truth is that the United States cannot walk away from Iraq. America has to put Iraq back on its feet or it will become an epicenter of terrorism and mayhem. It's going to take some sophistication to pull off. And it's going to be very expensive. Last spring, a majority of Americans wanted war, and they got it; this is the price tag.

There is, unfortunately, another conflicting truth. A great deal of American democracy-building aid over the past decade fell somewhere between wasteful and futile. Most of the money was spent in the United States on American consultants, contractors and manufactured goods. This did little to stimulate the economy of whatever nation was receiving the aid. Of the small percentage that did get spent "in country," a large amount was stolen. Professors got rich while coal miners in Russia lost their jobs.

Don't get us wrong: Of course there are foreign aid programs that work, and work effectively. But sudden big-ticket projects like the total transformation of Iraq should make any taxpayer wary.

Critics who want to kill the entire package are dangerously off-base. Democrats who question why the United States can spend so freely in Iraq while there are so many needs at home have a point; but Baghdad and Baltimore wouldn't be in competition for spending if it weren't for President Bush's reckless and irresponsible tax cuts -- and those are not immutable. Senators who want to turn the aid into loans secured by Iraqi oil have what seems like an appealing argument. But the White House is right on this one; loans would place an unacceptable burden on the Iraqi people, and make America look mean, besides.

Yes, the Iraq program should go forward -- but not without thoughtful and deliberate consideration. The emphasis should be on rebuilding things (like the electric grid) rather than recasting a way of life; forget the $20 million for business classes. Plenty of people in the Middle East know how to build prisons; America doesn't need to spend $10 million to send 100 "experts" over there to tell them how to do it. And more work can be done more cheaply by Iraqis than by U.S. contractors, with a more powerful and long-lasting effect on the country.

That may be the most important point. If this is a program that funnels billions of dollars to Bechtel and Halliburton, Congress should scrap it and start over. Iraqis must believe they are rebuilding their own country. Still, a program that ends up carelessly funneling money into the secret bank accounts of Iraqi crooks isn't any better.

Rebuilding Iraq will require intelligent foresight and keen oversight. It should be done -- but it should be done right.

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