The price of winning the war and keeping the peace

The United States seems to be well prepared for war in Iraq, but it isn't clear how well prepared it is for the peace that follows.

Inside the Bush administration, there are conflicting views about what Iraqi peacekeeping and nation rebuilding would cost. The American people are not getting good answers to their questions about what the price would be, how long it would take, and who, besides the United States, would help.

The troops are massed, weapons are in place, and military men are suggesting that after a short, sharp campaign fought with amazing new weapons, the liberating army may be at the gates of Baghdad in about 12 days.

Presumably at that stage Saddam Hussein's departure from the scene will either have taken place or be imminent. First priorities would be securing Iraq's oil fields, seizing key Hussein generals and henchmen before they can get away or do harm, and feeding and sheltering thousands of civilian victims of the war, along with captured prisoners.

What happens after that is less clear, but it is critical. For while eliminating Mr. Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction are important, an even greater goal is bringing freedom to Iraq's people and nurturing democracy. That can send a stream of fresh, liberating air across the repressed and backward Arab lands of Islam.

President Bush laid out this vision when he spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last week. "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example for other nations in the region," he declared. "It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life." But he also warned that bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. That is a considerable understatement.

A few days earlier, about a hundred officials from key Washington agencies met behind closed doors to review plans for postwar Iraq. Spearheading the planning is the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the Pentagon. The Defense Department's Under-secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, suggested that reconstruction would require the involvement of other countries and the United Nations, but said no decisions have been made about how this would be done.

Actually, there is not even certainty about how large a force the US would have to maintain. Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, suggested last week it might mean several hundred thousand US soldiers. He was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon's top civilian leaders who prefer a figure closer to 100,000.

There is similar vagueness about the dollar costs. White House projections for waging war and one year of reconstruction costs range from $60 billion to $95 billion. That would be somewhat higher than the Gulf War costs of some $76 billion. But there is far too much "we won't really know until we get on the ground" talk.

There are some understandable variables. Is the United States going to have to reconstruct Iraq and nurture democracy all by itself, or will other nations help, as they did in the Gulf War, defraying a major part of the cost? To some extent that depends on whether the United Nations Security Council endorses military action against Iraq. But even without that UN blessing, the international community should surely rally after hostilities with humanitarian aid and measures that would set Iraq on the road from tyranny to democracy. There may not be much of a coalition willing to fight, but there ought to be an alliance in favor of installing a free Iraq within the family of civilized nations.

President Bush may well be disillusioned with the backing and filling of certain Security Council members, but the UN should not be written off. It has the potential to be a constructive player in a postwar Iraq. Appropriately funded by its member-nations, it could provide significant humanitarian service and aid to refugees - as well as help establish a civil administration to succeed the military administration that would be in place immediately after the fighting ceased.

Iraq's oil industry is another factor in postwar reconstruction. How much will it cost to rebuild? How much wealth can it produce, and how soon, to galvanize the country's economy?

Freeing Iraq from Hussein may be a noble cause, but if Americans are to shoulder much of the burden, they deserve better estimates of the cost than they have had to date.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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