- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

The $87 billion that President Bush wants isn’t the critical number in the bitter debate over how much more we need to spend on Iraq.

The real number: the nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001, at the hands of terrorists, and the American lives at stake in the years ahead.

This number is the only criterion in deciding how much money is spent to ensure Iraq becomes a strong democratic ally of the United States in the war against terrorism. This would be an ally that could help prevent the next attack that our own intelligence community says terrorists are plotting even now.

You don’t hear much about that huge September 11 death toll in these latest budget debates, though just two years ago it stunned the world and rallied Americans against the evil forces that plotted to destroy us.

Now, the attacks have become a historically distant nightmare buried by the noisy political battle over President Bush’s pre-emptive war strategy. Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts hysterically accuse Mr. Bush of hatching his war plans for political purposes to win next year’s elections and using U.S. funds to bribe foreign leaders. “This whole thing was a fraud,” Mr. Kennedy recently said.

A week ago, U.S. intelligence officials reported that one of Osama bin Laden’s top henchmen, involved in planning September 11, said the original plan was supposed to involve twice as many planes. You would think this information would have reminded Mr., Kennedy and other critics what’s really at stake. If 3,000 lives sounds horrendous, how about 30,000 lives? Or 300,000?

But apparently this is not worrying Mr. Kennedy or many prominent world leaders. Instead of rallying the United Nations to do all it can to support the United States, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sharply questioned Mr. Bush’s military policy to go after the terrorists before they come after us.

“My concern is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification,” Mr. Annan told the General Assembly shortly after Mr. Bush spoke there last week.

Terrorists are blowing up U.N. personnel in Baghdad and elsewhere and assassinating brave Iraqi officials trying to rebuild their country, and Mr. Annan is worrying that America’s successful wars against the centers of global terrorism might undercut the United Nation’s global peacekeeping role? The mind boggles.

Still, weaknesses are emerging in the administration’s sales job. Mr. Bush’s address to the United Nations did not have the stirring call-to-arms rhetoric of last September’s speech. Half the speech dealt with other topics, including weapons proliferation and sex-slave trafficking.

This was the time for a more emotional, impassioned call to persevere in the war on terrorism. Mr. Bush’s speech needed an eloquent, full-throated declaration of what is at stake in Iraq that would have been remembered long after it was over. Sadly, it lacked that.

Mr. Bush also went to New York to seek military and financial support from our allies. He also attempted to soothe embittered differences with the French, Germans and others, knowing he was unlikely to get much in the way of money or men. A new U.N. resolution, seen as the key to opening assistance to the U.S. rebuilding effort, may be months from final approval — though it hardly matters now.

“We’re not going to get a lot of international troops with or without a U.N. resolution,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bluntly told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. “I think somewhere between zero and 10,000 or 15,000 is probably the ballpark.”

The Pentagon may have to send in fresh reserve units — if additional foreign forces are not forthcoming — to bring some of our exhausted, overstretched forces home.

But this is no time for political naysayers to sound retreat. This is a time for steely perseverance and building on our successes in Iraq, which are substantial.

The Iraqi governing council has just opened up its country to foreign investment and is privatizing its state-owned businesses, which will boost its economy. In response to safety concerns, private Iraqi security firms are sprouting up to protect businesses from terrorist attacks. Iraqi leaders are putting their lives on the line to take key governing positions.

A free, democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East “would be a defeat for the ideology of terror that is seeking to take control of that area of the world,” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote in an Op-Ed in The Washington Post last Thursday.

Not many months ago that idea was denounced as a pipedream. Now “it is a goal within reach,” he says. “But only if we help Iraqis build their nation, instead of trying to do it for them.”

Amen to that.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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