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The Cost of the Iraq War

September 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the funding request and how to spend the money, we get two perspectives. Richard Perle serves on the Defense Policy Board, which advises the secretary of defense, and was assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan. Medea Benjamin is founding director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization. She recently visited Iraq with human rights organizations tracking the reconstruction.

Medea Benjamin, we all just heard Paul Bremer lay out the spending plan and the priorities for the Iraq reconstruction. Is it the right plan, and is it the right amount of money?

Bremer’s focus and spending priorities

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Perle, did Paul Bremer’s plan sound right to you both in its focus and its spending priorities?

RICHARD PERLE: Yes, it did, and I find it a bit ironic to listen to someone say there’s no electricity, there’s no water, therefore we must not spend money on electricity and water. What we are attempting to do in Iraq is precisely restore essential services, as Ambassador Bremer indicated, provide security, and open the way to a decent Iraqi government and a private Iraqi economy.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: But we haven’t been able to do it in six months.

RICHARD PERLE: Of course it can’t be done in six months, no one is proposing that it could be done in six months–

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It certainly can and should have been done in six months. The electricity should be up and running, if the Iraqis were in charge they would have done it themselves. The water supply should be running, the telephone system should be up and running. There is no reason to have this chaos that’s in Iraq right now. And it’s because the U.S. Administration doesn’t have a clue about what it’s doing. That’s why it needs to be an immediate transition the U. N., and then to the Iraqis who know how to rebuild their own economy much better than Paul Bremer.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Perle.

RICHARD PERLE: Well, I certainly believe that the Iraqis should be involved in the rebuilding their economy, and they will be. Much of the work that will be done under this program will be carried out by Iraqi workers. I can’t for the life of me see how adding the United Nations bureaucracy to this is going to expedite getting Iraqis to work, rebuilding their country.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s return to the — Ms. Benjamin, let me continue here. By many accounts inside the Senate there is no appetite for turning down this package. Can we look at the money that’s been spent in Iraq already and see that it’s been spent well so that there’s some confidence that the next $87 billion might be spent well also?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: No, we can’t at all. We’ve already spent $78 billion.

RAY SUAREZ: Let Richard Perle answer that question, then I’ll give you a chance.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Sure.

RICHARD PERLE: The amounts that have been spent on reconstruction up until now have been spent under extremely difficult circumstances. And I have no reason to believe that that money under those circumstances has not been spent reasonably or spent well. This is not a situation in which you can go out and offer contracts where contractors are free to employ work forces without security concerns. It’s a very difficult situation. And so if one were to go back and do an audit, I suppose you’ll find that some of the standards of peacetime stable societies didn’t apply. But on the whole, given the circumstances, I think we’ve done rather well.

RAY SUAREZ: Medea Benjamin?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we’ve done miserably, Ray. Just think — Halliburton is making $2 billion, Bechtel is making $1 billion. And they haven’t been able to turn on the electricity or turn back the water supply. They can’t do the job, plus they’re wasting massive amounts of money. Even the governing council that was hand-appointed by the U.S. is saying that the money being spent is being wasted because it’s U.S. companies in charge instead of Iraqis.

RAY SUAREZ: So you would suggest immediate turning over of authority to the U. N. Does the U. N. have a track record in these matters that’s more encouraging than America’s thus far?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it certainly has a track record that’s more encouraging than the Americans. It’s been six months since this occupation, and even the Iraqis who welcomed the U.S. with open arms and were so happy to get rid of Saddam Hussein are now extremely bitter and angry. The resentment will only grow unless the U.S. turns this over to a legitimate authority, which is the United Nations, which will have a quick time line for Iraqi self rule and that the money that is pledged by the U.S. and the international community — and let’s remember the international community will not pledge money unless it is in the hands of the United Nations — and that money should go directly to Iraqis and not to companies like Halliburton and Bechtel that are profiteering from this war.

RICHARD PERLE: What you just heard is a tirade against American companies in the left-wing tradition that she represents. Her characterization of the situation in Iraq is not at all borne out by many conversations I’ve had with Iraqis, including members of the governing council she’s been referring to.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I challenge to you go there with me, Mr. Perle, because I was there in July, I was there in August, I don’t stay in the presidential palace, I don’t go around with bodyguards and helicopters and sniffing dogs like Paul Bremer and Colin Powell. I challenge to you go with me, without any bodyguards and let’s walk around the streets of the cities of Iraq and see what it looks like six months after the U.S. occupation.

RICHARD PERLE: With all due respect, your sojourns in the cities of Iraq are hardly the appropriate measure of how well we have done in restoring electricity and getting water back on track. I don’t think –

MEDEA BENJAMIN: You know better sitting in Washington, D.C.?

RAY SUAREZ: Let him finish, please.

RICHARD PERLE: Let’s be clear. This is a massive undertaking and very significant progress has been made, and it makes no sense for to you sit there and say nothing has been accomplished when a great deal has been accomplished.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s an absolute disaster, Mr. Perle, and I think you know it, but go with me and you’ll see with your own eyes.

RAY SUAREZ: If we are in a situation where even by Paul Bremer’s own admission, things are not where they wanted them to be by this point in the occupation, is there also a political price that’s eventually paid — as far as working with a civilian population that is becoming impatient, regardless of what happened before the invasion, but becoming impatient with American administration right there at the moment?

RICHARD PERLE: People are impatient when they can’t get electricity. I was without it until earlier today. For four days. And I was awfully impatient, after the storm we had here. So it’s perfectly understandable that people are impatient. It is also very clear that no one wants Saddam Hussein back. That was a regime of terror and we’re well rid of it and the Iraqi people are well rid of it and they are a good deal more tolerant than some Americans, as we’ve just seen. They’re prepared to work with us, they’re eager to work with us and they are working with us, and the bitterness that I just heard described is not the prevailing sentiment in Iraq.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Because you haven’t been there – go on any street corner.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you see no electricity in evidence, no public utilities in evidence? I mean all the reporting that’s coming out of Iraq shows that these things are sporadic, perhaps not as reliable as they should be, but in some evidence.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The electricity is sporadic, it’s less available than it was under Saddam Hussein. The streets are full of green bubbling sewage, there is no decent garbage collection. There is no decent access to water. There is an unemployment crisis because so many people have been thrown out of their jobs, and perhaps worst of all, there is no law and order. Women, particularly, are afraid to go out of their homes, afraid to go out on the streets.

There will be no law and order until the U.S. troops leave Iraq, it’s turned over to the United Nations, and then becomes in the hands of the Iraqis themselves, that’s the only way this situation is going to improve for the Iraqis themselves, and let’s remember that many Americans feel there’s a much better use of $87 billion to put into our schools, our health care system, our public transportation system, instead of spending it to put our boys and girls in harm’s way in Iraq, a country where they don’t want to be and a country where the Iraqis don’t want us.

RICHARD PERLE: Now we’ve gone full circle. We’ve come from deploring the situation in Iraq, to saying that things have to be done to fix it, to saying we shouldn’t spend any money to fix it. I think it’s very clear that she’s just not the least bit interested in the people of Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: But can American policymakers expect the kind of help that they’re looking for from the U.N. without ceding some oversight of the reconstruction?

RICHARD PERLE: I don’t know what help we’re looking for from the United Nations. You asked earlier about the track record of the United Nations. I had a conversation with a very senior Afghan official, a cabinet minister, just recently, who said to me everything the U. N. does in Afghanistan costs three times as much as what we are able to do for ourselves. We do it –

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The governing council in Iraq is saying that it’s costing ten times…

RICHARD PERLE: Could I –

RAY SUAREZ: Let him finish, please.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: … to give to the U.S. what would be used in Iraq.

RICHARD PERLE: We — we do agree on one point, which is that the sooner the people of Iraq are in control of their own destiny, the better. And the way to facilitate that is by providing a jump start, by providing some money that will start the reconstruction. This is a country in which there was virtually no investment for three decades, there was nothing but tyranny and murder. And so it is at the beginning in every respect, with respect to electricity, with respect to water, with respect to –

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, there’s less electricity, there’s less water, there’s less jobs available. People are miserable, Mr. Perle. This is not working, it is a quagmire, we need the world community to invest funds into Iraq because we can’t do it alone and the only way we’re going to get that help from the international community is if we turn the situation over to the United Nations, the only legitimate authority to oversee the transition to Iraqi self rule.

RAY SUAREZ: We have to end it there. Medea Benjamin, Richard Perle, thank you both.