Bush’s Free Ride on Iraq

Well, the debate season has come and gone. Like many Americans, I invested six hours watching all four debates — three between Kerry and Bush and one with the vice presidential candidates. I can’t be the only one who thought they got duller each time out. As each candidate got more sure-footed in the format, they also got more cautious, relying in the end almost wholly on time-tested stump speech material. At least we got one debate where ordinary citizens asked the questions — the point at which the debates came closest to breaking through the format of dueling press conferences. The debates also highlighted, in this campaign season, the utter failure of our media to investigate more closely the claims of candidates, particularly President Bush. No issue showed this more clearly than the war in Iraq, the single topic most often mentioned in debate questions and answers — even creeping into the domestic policy debate Wednesday night. Yet for all the words spilled regarding Iraq, curiously little attention was being paid to what’s happening on the ground there.

At several points, for example, Bush made the assertion that 120,000 Iraq security forces will be trained by the end of this year. It’s simply ludicrous, but I didn’t hear or see one media account challenging Bush on his numbers. NATO was supposed to step in and start training Iraqi troops; they’ve only recently reached an agreement on how to structure their mission, and they won’t be up and running in Iraq until the end of the year — the point at which, according to Bush, the training of Iraqis is to be completed. The problem is that France, Germany, and Russia refuse to send any troops to Iraq, even as part of a NATO contingent, so the U.S. has to go around and ask for a few troops here and few troops there from the smaller NATO countries.

Then, there’s the problem of logistics, with a mish-mash of trainers that all speak different languages, have different cultures, use different weapons, and have very different ideas about what constitutes human rights. Currently, Iraqi national guard troops are patrolling the streets of Baghdad and other cities in Toyota pickup trucks, with six or seven guys in each vehicle and almost none of them have body armor. When they get hit with a roadside bomb, they’re dead. Not wounded. Dead. Is it any wonder why some of them are reportedly switching sides?

Meantime, a report issued last week at the same time as the Duelfer report has gotten virtually zero attention, but sheds all sorts of light on what’s really happening in Iraq. The State Department report discussed the amount of money spent so far on reconstruction in Iraq. In January, George Bush said that the U.S. government would spend $12.7 billion rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure by October 1, 2004. Well, October 1st has come and gone, and the U.S. has spent only $1.22 billion — less than 7 percent of the amount allocated for reconstruction in Iraq.

More shocking was the breakdown of how that $1.22 billion was spent. Estimates vary, but the consensus is as follows: 30 percent was paid for security, 6 percent for profits paid to contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel, 12 percent for insurance and non-Iraqi employees (i.e., U.S. executives), 10 percent diverted to the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Embassy for their overhead expenses, and, horribly, 15 percent lost to corruption, fraud, and mismanagement. That leaves a tiny 27 percent for reconstruction projects, or a total of $329 million – only 2.5 percent of that original $12.7 billion promise.

For comparison, $4.4 billion was originally budgeted for fixing Iraq’s electrical system and $2.3 billion for water projects and sanitation — the two most critical needs in the country. And, while George W. Bush brags about how we’ve built hospitals in Iraq, he’s just fantasizing again; of the $286 million budgeted for healthcare in Iraq, only $2 million has been spent.

Finally, while more reconstruction money is in the pipeline, it’s staying there; reconstruction work in Iraq has come to a virtual halt, and won’t be resuming any time soon. It’s simply too dangerous, particularly for foreigners.

As with Afghanistan, the promise of elections in Iraq come January is somewhere between a charade and a cruel joke. The Sunnis are all but guaranteed to boycott the process, only American-approved candidates are running, and the whole thing is a setup to legitimize a government that in the eyes of almost all Iraqis has no legitimacy at all. It’s an invitation to civil war.

Depressing? Sure. But also easily verifiable, which makes the ongoing ability of President Bush to spin his rose-colored fantasies without serious media challenge all the more troubling. It’s bad enough that we have a commander-in-chief who is either badly deluded or intentionally lying, ignoring the grim intelligence reports he receives each day.

But it’s even worse that he spins these fantasies with little direct challenge from John Kerry and no hard questioning by our national media. He’s getting a free ride, and with less than three weeks until the election, there’s no excuse for it.

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