Can We Afford To Occupy Iraq?

by , September 04, 2003

The recent bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq has refocused the world’s attention on the dangerous situation in that nation. The Bush administration is now softening its position against UN involvement, and is considering the use of UN military forces to serve as an international peacekeeping coalition in Iraq.

We should not expect any international coalition to help us pay the bills for occupying Iraq, however. American taxpayers alone will bear the tremendous financial burden of nation building in Iraq. We are already spending about 5 billion dollars in Iraq every month, a number likely to increase as the ongoing instability makes it clear that more troops and aid are needed. We will certainly spend far more than the 65 billion dollars originally called for by the administration to prosecute the war. The possibility of spending hundreds of billions in Iraq over several years is very real. This is money we simply don’t have, as evidenced by the government’s deficit spending – borrowing – to finance the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to date.

It’s easy for politicians to say, "We will spend whatever it takes to rebuild Iraq," but it’s not their money. Occupying Iraq is not a matter of noble national resolve like World War II. The cost of restoring order will be enormous, and we need to carefully weigh the supposed benefits and ask ourselves exactly what we hope to get for our money. I doubt many Americans believe Iraq is worth bankrupting our nation or saddling future generations with billions more in debt.

The American public deserves clear goals and a definite exit strategy in Iraq. It’s not enough for our political and military leaders to make vague references to some future time when democratic rule and a civil society somehow will emerge in Iraq. It’s patently unrealistic to expect that nation’s various warring factions to suddenly embrace representative democracy and accept the outcome of a western-style vote. Even if open elections could be held, the majority might well choose an anti-American fundamentalist regime. This puts Washington in a Catch 22: The U.S. clearly will influence the creation of a new Iraqi government to ensure it is friendly to America, yet the perception that we installed the government will create further hostility toward America. There obviously are no easy solutions to the dilemmas we face in Iraq, and the complexity of the political and social realities begs the question: How do we ever hope to get out? If real stability and democratic rule simply cannot be attained in Iraq, are we prepared to occupy it for decades to come?

The Korean conflict should serve as a cautionary tale against the open-ended military occupation of any region. Human tragedy aside, we have spent half a century and more than one trillion of today’s dollars in Korea. What do we have to show for it? North Korea is a belligerent adversary armed with nuclear technology, while South Korea is at best ambivalent about our role as their protector. The stalemate stretches on with no end in sight, while the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the brave men who fought in Korea continue to serve there. Although the situation in Iraq is different, the lesson learned in Korea is clear. We must not allow our nation to become entangled in another endless, intractable, overseas conflict. We literally cannot afford to have the occupation of Iraq stretch on for years.

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