WASHINGTON — A month into watching the post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq, there's one overwhelming feeling: Maybe all those tax cuts aren't such a bad idea after all. If this is how the United States plans to restore the nation it bombed and liberated, maybe we'd be better off taking away all the money the federal government is spending on Iraq and farming the whole process out to Halliburton.
The private sector may be untested in nation building, but after the start we've seen in Iraq, it may be time to give it a try.
It's been more than a month since Saddam Hussein's statue fell to the cheers of dancing Iraqis. And while no one expected elementary school pupils to be taking field trips to the new and improved, free and democratic Iraq by mid-May, there's been a troubling lack of progress and professionalism in recent weeks.
The most basic task, finding the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration said existed in the hundreds of tons, has thus far proved fruitless. They may still turn up, but one of the principal groups searching for them is now set to go home without finding any evidence that they existed.
The harder part of the job, governing a population in chaos and cleaning up the mess created by the war, is also proving difficult.
The interim administration the US put in place in Iraq is turning out to be more interim than most of us thought - including, probably, the people serving in it. Ret. Gen. Jay Garner, the Iraqi administrator, will be heading home sooner than expected in the next few weeks. And Barbara Bodine, the US-installed temporary mayor of Baghdad, is being pulled out after only threeweeks on the job. News accounts indicate the changes are largely because some in the administration are unhappy with their work.
As bad as all that sounds, though, perhaps most surprising has been the US plan's deficiencies where the Iraqi media are concerned. If the Bush White House has a strong suit, it's in the development and selling of political messages. (If this administration had been placed in charge of marketing "New Coke," Pepsi might not even exist today.)
Yet, as of Monday, there was no organized US television system in Iraq - nothing fighting the messages coming in from Iran that are openly critical of the US military and what the Iranian broadcasts portray as the motives of the US. In fact, over the past month, the only US television in Iraq was a daily six-hour broadcast that was in large part translated versions of American network newscasts. The good news is that this is better than nothing. The bad news is that any Iraqi watching these broadcasts will not be allowed to serve on the jury of the Laci Peterson trial.
Even in the case of this temporary news, the group charged with putting the newscast together, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, says it wasn't called until after Iraq fell and was asked to throw something together as quickly as possible.
The question is why the administration wasn't better prepared to handle these problems.
There was never any real doubt about the outcome of the war in Iraq and senior administration officials made it clear that they thought it would be over quickly. Vice President Cheney said he expected an end in weeks, not months.
That being the case, one would imagine the people planning the efforts to "bring democracy to Iraq" - the last formulation of a rationale for the war - would have had a strategy to handle some of the most basic elements of making that dream a reality. Increasingly, it appears that was not the case.
There was much to be happy about with the "war" part of the war in Iraq - it ended quickly, with few US casualties and apparently without many civilian casualties either. But in the end, winning a war against Iraq is not something for this country to beat its chest about. The US spends more on defense than the next 10 largest defense spenders combined. That money pays for well-trained soldiers and high-tech weaponry designed not only to win wars, but to win them quickly and decisively. From the beginning, it was clear that the real issue in Iraq was going to be what would happen when the war was over.
The task before the Bush administration is undoubtedly immense. The war on terror is a horribly complicated endeavor. It is, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has notably said, full of knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns - things that you don't even know you don't know yet.
It's that third category, the "unknown unknowns," that is scariest, Mr. Rumsfeld says.
That's not good news. In Iraq anyway, the US so far seems ill- prepared to handle the first two.