- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Knives are being sharpened on both sides of the political aisle. President Bush’s $87 billion request for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan has produced bipartisan sticker shock.

Leave aside for the moment that the president has not made the case for this request effectively. The money is unquestionably needed for rebuilding nations that were in disrepair long before the war began. Moreover, if the goal is to create a democracy in the midst of tyranny, the money might have a salutary effect on the entire region.

The U.S. cannot afford to fail in Iraq. The money in question will go a long way to making sure that doesn’t happen. However, the administration hasn’t been particularly imaginative in submitting its proposal to the Congress.

It seems to me both the public and elected officials would be more receptive to the president’s request if it were couched as a loan to be repaid with discounted oil prices. If the price of oil is $29 a barrel, for example, Iraq could charge the U.S. $20 until $87 billion is reached. Presumably this discount to oil companies would be passed along to the consumer in the form of lower gas prices.

Considering the U.S. spent treasure and spilled blood for the redemption of Iraq, it is only reasonable for Iraqis to offer something in return. Since oil is the only commodity Iraq has, and that is a commodity the U.S. wants, a deal of the kind I propose would seem to make sense.

Yet remarkably it was not in the administration’s calculus. It may be that Bush analysts did not expect so much carping over his request. But with political invective in the air, how could that response be ignored? As I see it, the administration’s policy is correct and, despite media accounts, is working, but the president and his staff haven’t been effective in selling it. Instead media spokesmen have been unchallenged in comparing Iraq to Vietnam, a comparison that exists solely in the mind of press panjandrums in U.S. television studios.

Notwithstanding the by now customary buzz from detractors, Iraq is not a “quagmire.” But it is also far from a law-abiding, constitutional democracy. That’s why the money is imperative. It will take years of rebuilding (read: building) before Iraq can create a stable government.

Recognizing the commitment that is necessary to achieve this goal, the president should note the money is a multiyear investment that will offer accruals for a model that could be emulated throughout the region. Perhaps even more significant, is a prospective quid pro quo. The U.S. gives the money now and the public derives the reduced oil price benefits later. This approach is in both nations’ interest and, notably, would make the investment somewhat more palatable for the public.

Progress in Iraq will not come with a discount. The U.S. has lost 308 service members to date. Yes, the number is low when compared to other wars, but that argument doesn’t fly with Americans whose tolerance for bloodshed decreases as incomes rise and birthrates lower. Neither is it appropriate to argue that $87 billion is a relatively low sum compared to other wars. At a time with budget deficits increasing, $87 billion is a daunting challenge which a number of Democratic presidential candidates can easily exploit.

The president should note that the American investment today will have a profound effect on the war on terrorism tomorrow. There is also a pragmatic dimension to the investment. President Bush can legitimately maintain America’s largess should be reciprocated with Iraqi gestures. If we give, we should receive as well.

Money for oil discounts is the contract Americans will approve. It’s time for the president to appreciate we will fight for survival and give generously for stability, but at some point the nations receiving our beneficence should be prepared to do something for us in return.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and John M. Olin professor of humanities of the New York University, publisher of American Outlook and author of “Decade of Denial,” recently published by Lexington Books

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