YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Crucial Prewar Questions

February 11, 2003

On the wall outside Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's office hangs a framed copy of the June 5, 1947, speech of George C. Marshall announcing the economic and political plan that rebuilt a Europe devastated by years of war. If the United States launches military action against Iraq, the American people need to be told what plans the Bush administration has for that country after Saddam Hussein's ouster.

Powell told the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times on Monday that if war becomes necessary -- and the talk in Washington makes it sound as if there is no other possibility -- the U.S. will try to preserve Iraq's infrastructure and get the country on its feet quickly. He admitted, with astounding understatement, that governing Iraq after Hussein would be "very difficult," perhaps requiring an international trusteeship or a U.S. military leader to "manage it for a while."

Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice were careful to say that they hope that war isn't necessary. But it increasingly seems as if it's all over but the launching. Powell is holding on to some hope that the United Nations will still do its job and enforce its demands that Iraq prove it has destroyed its weapons of mass destruction. Rice, in talking Monday about the "liberation" of Iraq, conveys a moral certainty that we don't share about the propriety of the United States potentially occupying a country whose imminent threat to this nation is still hypothetical.

Powell said he could not predict how long troops might remain in Iraq but that he hoped for support from the United Nations, the European Union countries and other nations for postwar governance. He did not mention cost, the great unknown, but he said Iraq could produce $20 billion a year in oil revenue, which would be used "for the benefit of the people."

The chances of getting other countries to help pay the costs of a war -- estimates range from $50 billion to $200 billion -- and reconstruction will diminish greatly if Washington fails to get support from the U.N. Security Council. Three permanent Security Council members, France, China and Russia, are demanding that U.N. inspectors in Iraq be given more time.

Powell echoed President Bush's proclamation that if the Security Council demurs, Washington will lead a coalition of willing nations. But if the U.S. must bear the bulk of the war costs, at a time of economic strain and ill-advised tax cuts that would deprive the nation of revenue, other programs will have to be cut. Which ones? If, as Bush says, the decision about Iraq will come in a matter of weeks, it's certainly not too soon to ask.

The Bush administration came into office opposed to "nation-building," and its one attempt so far, Afghanistan, is a poor model. Washington refused to put peacekeeping troops supplied by other nations anywhere but Kabul, the capital. That allowed warlords to remain entrenched, preying on villagers and preventing the central government from collecting taxes or showing that it is a true national government.

Powell acknowledged that no exact model exists on which to base a rebuilt Iraq, though he said Iraq's future had been discussed "extensively" within the administration. The results of those discussions should be shared with the American people. How many occupying troops? For how long? At what cost? Why is it worth it?

Marching off to war without a clear understanding of the possible consequences is a mistake; it deepens the worries of Americans and increases the chances of a quick withdrawal from Iraq that would leave the country and the region in worse shape.

Los Angeles Times Articles