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Hubris Doesn't Come Cheap

October 06, 2003

The European Union's announcement that it will give a microscopic 1% of the $20 billion the Bush administration wants for rebuilding Iraq sent a signal as thunderously political as economic: Nations upset by the U.S. invasion won't pay for the aftermath unless Washington changes its tune.

As the EU last week put forth 200 million euros -- about $234 million -- as its "reasonable contribution" to Iraqi nation-building, the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimated the cost of rebuilding Iraq at $55 billion over the next four years. Then, there's the Bush administration's separate, $67-billion request for military operations, mostly in Iraq but also Afghanistan. The stunning figures, at a time of gargantuan U.S. deficits and proposals for still more tax cuts, should have American taxpayers turning their pockets inside out and pleading for mercy.

The need to solicit international donors also should prompt the administration to face reality. Lecturing other nations on their duty to help clean up the mess the U.S. created may make the scolds feel better but it won't induce those hectored to help out.

Washington needs to get an Iraqi administration in power, fast. An independent government would have more luck getting foreign aid than U.S.-installed puppets. Iraqi rulers should emphasize that firms from all nations could bid openly on contracts to pump petroleum, set up telephones, remove mines and carry out all the tasks that tens of billions of dollars would finance. Firms from Russia, France and other countries, owed billions of dollars by Saddam Hussein's regime, should forget about seeing those debts repaid; instead, they should be allowed to compete for new jobs. Even if other countries, agencies or firms ante up more, U.S. taxpayers will pay the most. That requires Congress to take a closer look.

Though U.S. soldiers deserve the best, patriotic lawmakers should scrutinize military spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, not just the Iraqi rebuilding tab. In Iraq, many businessmen say they can fix oil fields and other wrecked facilities more cheaply than $100,000-a-year U.S. workers. Using talented Iraqis from all economic classes would lower unemployment there and the burden here.

Some European legislators have suggested doubling the EU's proposed donation. But even if Europe gives more and Japan pledges $1 billion at a conference of aid-giving nations in Madrid later this month, the sums will be paltry. With the weapons of mass destruction still unfound, President Bush's unfortunate insistence at the U.N. last month that the United States did the right thing in Iraq won him no support from nations that could help. When will this administration learn that the burdens in Iraq are too much for U.S. taxpayers to bear alone and that diplomacy is demanded if the nation wants to pass the hat among friends and not have it come back empty?

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