The War: What Washington Won't Tell Us

The U.S. appears to be just weeks away from invading Iraq, yet the nation is singularly unprepared for what would follow--the occupation. The Bush Administration blithely talks about, in effect, spreading democracy by the sword, but it is not preparing the American people for what that phenomenon may cost in time, money, and lives. The war in Iraq may be a righteous one--Saddam Hussein is clearly a tyrant who tortures his people and builds weapons of mass destruction that could get into terrorists' hands. But Americans deserve to know just what kind of sacrifice they will be asked to make for his removal. It is time for the White House to come clean with the public.

Astonishingly, the Administration has refused to estimate either the short-term cost of war or the long-term price of occupation. Not a cent of what must be spent on Iraq--tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars--can be found in the most recent federal budget. Granted, the range of estimates may be wide, depending on how long the war lasts and who joins the U.S. in the fight and in keeping the peace. But with the U.S. at odds with its French and German allies, Americans will probably bear most of the burden.

One problem is that there is wishful thinking in Washington that Iraqi oil revenues will defray war costs and the expense of rebuilding the Iraqi government and economy. A report, Guiding Principles For U.S. Post-Conflict Policy In Iraq, by Edward P. Djerejian, who was ambassador to Syria, and Frank G. Wisner, who served as ambassador to Egypt and India, for the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, warns that it could cost $30 billion to $40 billion to rehabilitate Iraq's oil fields--even if they are not torched by Saddam Hussein--and to develop new ones. The report warns further that the U.S. risks being seen as an imperialist in the Middle East rather than a liberator if it doesn't allow the Iraqis to manage their own oil fields. Bottom line: Just as Washington proposes big tax cuts, we don't have any idea of the true financial burden of a foreign policy of preemption.

Nor do we know if the Administration yet has a plan for occupation. There is an ongoing debate inside the White House on whether a U.S. general should run a post-Saddam Iraq for years, a la Douglas MacArthur, or whether there should be a quick transition to international agencies, then to Iraqis. There are questions about using a "U.N. model," which gives the U.N. the task of nation-building, or a more efficient "U.S. model" that has Americans directly running the show. Even the kind of democracy to be introduced is unclear: A loose federation could give the Kurds the freedom they crave, while a more centralized government could curb violence among tribes. Nation-building has been slow going in Bosnia and Afghanistan and a total failure in Haiti. The Administration needs a plan.

Beyond Iraq, Washington appears unsure about what comes next in the Middle East. To avoid being perceived as anti-Muslim or anti-Arab by invading Iraq, the U.S. must quickly reengage in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and call for the withdrawal of most settlements. Yassir Arafat has said privately that he would now accept the Camp David/Taba accords. Polls show that most Israelis would accept them, too, if they were enforced by a strong leader. An Israeli-Palestinian agreement is essential to spreading democracy in the Middle East. It would remove the source of anger dictators and kings manipulate to maintain their power. The Administration needs a plan.

It's two minutes to midnight, and Americans are justifiably nervous. We appear to be unprepared for the cost of war, the price of occupation, and the demands of ensuring long-term peace. Washington simply has to do better than this. Too much is at stake.

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