Penny-Wise Aid

President Bush's request for $87 billion for operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has provoked fierce debate. Critics - mostly Democrats, but an increasing number of Republicans - wonder why the American taxpayer should have to foot the bill for water projects and garbage trucks in Iraq. Some call for turning the reconstruction funds into a loan, to be repaid with future Iraqi oil revenues.

Congress is clearly reflecting Americans' unease over such huge spending overseas. It's especially troubling at a time when the US is running a $400 billion deficit.

Most of the money the president wants - $67 billion - is for US military operations. No one's really quibbling about that. It's the $20 billion in reconstruction assistance for Iraq that understandably has people upset.

The administration argues the expenses must be seen as national- security spending, not foreign aid. The great need now is to stabilize Iraq and get Iraqis back to work - to give them hope and turn their ears away from the arguments of Baathists and foreign fighters who want them to believe things are worse than under Saddam Hussein. Success will make coalition troops safer and allow the US to turn over the governing of Iraq to Iraqis that much sooner.

As it is, the World Bank estimates Iraqi reconstruction will cost between $50 billion and $75 billion. The US hopes to plug the gap with increased foreign donations and help from international financial institutions. In 2005 and 2006, surplus Iraqi oil revenues may be available as well.

Having won the war, the US still has a long way to go to win the peace. Saddling the Iraqi people with another $20 billion in debt is hardly the way to do it. Congress should approve the president's request.

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