A Costly Preemption

Joel Bleifuss

The folly of the war in Iraq becomes more and more apparent as the bill for this misadventure is tabulated.

The economic cost continues to mount. On September 7, President George W. Bush asked Congress to allocate $87 billion dollars in emergency funding to pay for the military occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. “We will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror, to promote freedom, and to make our own nation more secure,” he said. Yet few in the media discuss the opportunity costs that such a request entails—Bush wants to spend $34 billion more on Iraq than the $53 billion he proposed for education in his 2004 budget.

The human cost is equally uncertain. The American death toll stands at 288 (150 of whom have been killed since the war was declared “over”) and is growing. Iraqi dead remain uncounted.

The political cost to the world of the “war on terror” includes a more volatile Middle East, an escalation of what many Muslims perceive as a war against Islam, and the alienation of the United States from its traditional allies.

Most significantly, perhaps, the war has cost the United Nations its leadership role in resolving the world’s conflicts and allowed the United States to step in as the world’s armed intervener.

Against its wishes, on August 19, the United Nations was dragged into the war on terror when a bomb exploded at its Baghdad headquarters, killing 23.

Questions have now been raised about whether the United States knew that such an attack was in the offing but did nothing to warn the United Nations. After the bombing, Ahmad Chalabi, the White House’s man in Baghdad and leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said that he received an intelligence report on August 14 that “a large-scale act would take place … against a soft target such as Iraqi political parties or other parties, including the U.N.” Chalabi is not known as a reliable source (despite the fact that he was the New York Times’ prime source of information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction), but if his claim is true, it means that the United States knew about an impending attack and did nothing to prevent it. And what’s more, failed to notify the United Nations that it was a target. A spokesman for Kofi Annan said, “To my knowledge, that information was not relayed to the United Nations.

The domestic cost includes an ever-growing government encroachment on civil liberties. As Kristie Reilly reports on page 20, safeguards against government surveillance of dissenting Americans are falling by the wayside. Indeed, Bush milked the anxiety created by the anniversary of 9/11 (televised on two-year replay) to call for exempting federal law enforcement agencies from judicial oversight in subpoenaing private records. He says this is needed to better battle “the servants of evil.” Charlie Mitchell, an ACLU legislative council, doesn’t buy it: “Politically and legally, further erosions of judicial oversight and the basic checks and balances that protect us and our democracy from political abuses of power are the wrong path to take.”

And let’s not forget the cost of the war on terror borne by those who work in American news rooms. Too many in the media are content to fawn over the powers that be. When was the last time you heard a journalist interview National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and challenge her numerous “misstatements of fact”—the term Reagan administration spin doctors coined for administration lies?

You can bet there are additional costs, yet unknown. What adventure will the Bush administration, in the upcoming election year, embark on to divert public attention from a debacle in Iraq that shows no sign of ending? An invasion of North Korea? A preemptive strike against Iran? The war in Iraq set the precedent, having provided a crucial distraction during the 2002 mid-term elections.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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