Reconstruction Run-around

AUSTIN, Texas -- It is insufficient to stand around saying, "I told you Iraq would be a disaster." Believe me, saying, "I told you so" is a satisfaction so sour it will gag you when people, including Americans, are dying every day.

I think our greatest strength is still pragmatism. OK, this isn't working, now what? In an effort to be constructive, even in the face of a developing catastrophe, I have been combing the public prints in an effort to find something positive to suggest.

There is a general consensus on both the left and right that we need to get more people over there, take control, and fix the lights and water, for starters. The more thoughtful advocates in the Do Something school, including Tom Friedman of The New York Times and David Ignatius of The Washington Post, favor a broader and more active coalition of international support, and the legitimacy that would provide. Kofi Annan, a classy guy, had the grace to say after the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, "The pacification and stabilization of Iraq is so important that all of us who have the capacity to help should help."

Secretary of State Colin Powell is now asking France, Germany and Britain to back a resolution in the United Nations that would bring in more international help. Some of the usual black-helicopter nuts insist, "But we must still be in control." Since the whole problem is that we're not in control now, that seems like a silly point. Whatever, in terms of the command structure -- let's just get some U.N. troops over there. If it takes more American troops, I suggest we send more American troops, because letting Iraq degenerate into chaos isn't good for the Iraqis or us.

There seems to be general agreement on a second step, as well -- handing off power to the Iraqis themselves. I wince to report this is already being called "Iraqification." Trouble is, we seem to be setting about it back asswards, by creating a national Iraqi council of our hand-selected choices and now giving some authority to these cabinet-level types. Wouldn't it make more sense to start at the local level? Why can't the Iraqis hold mayoral elections and go from there? (I know, they tried to do it in Najaf in June, but Paul Bremer stepped in and cancelled the election -- another mistake.)

A mistake we can avoid is Ahmad Chalabai. Chalabai, head of the exile group the Iraqi National Congress and also a convicted swindler, was the neo-cons' darling before the war. He is the right-wing's oddest foreign enthusiasm since the time they took up that dingbat killer Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Chalabai is widely reported to be the source of much of the massively bad intelligence the administration relied on concerning weapons of mass destruction and other subjects. Apparently, no one in the administration had ever come across the common wisdom about not trusting exile groups. One would think that Chalabai's untrustworthiness would be clear to all by now, but there are still a few true believers.

Some in the "I'm trying to be constructive" camp are advocating the reconstitution of the Iraqi Army on the grounds that much of it did not fight for Saddam Hussein anyway. That seems to me a more problematic enterprise. The army was surely the most Baathist of all Hussein's institutions. Perhaps if one started with the privates and didn't go very far up, one could avoid the real Baathist thugs.

I found a useful idea buried in a National Review article by John O'Sullivan, after wading through many paragraphs of silly, tendentious left-bashing. Boy, does he not get why many of us opposed this war. Anyway, he presented an idea he said comes from Pamela Hess of UPI: a short-term public works program, paying young men $5 a day to rebuild infrastructure. "Given that the devil makes work for idle hands, that would be a security program as well as an economic program." Sounds smart to me. We're paying Halliburton $1.7 billion to go in and fix things, but private companies obviously don't want to send their people into an active war zone. Why not pay the Iraqis, instead?

With both liberals and conservatives now on the "For Lord's sake, fix it" side, the biggest impediment to actually doing something is the Pentagon's "Hey, no problem, everything's going according to plan" attitude. Donald Rumsfeld is starting to sound like Alfred E. ("What, me worry?") Neuman. The inability to admit error is a salient characteristic of this administration, but I'm not interested in apologies or mea culpas -- just get over there and fix it.

If worse comes to worst, we can always follow Sen. George Aiken's solution for Vietnam, "Declare victory and go home."

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