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Published: Wednesday, 8/3/2005

Good time to gauge impact of Iraq war

IT IS worthwhile nearly 30 months into the Iraq war to look at what a difference it has made, in the United States, in Iraq, in the Middle East, and in the world as a whole.

For the United States, its forces are stretched thin. The deployment involved troops now standing at about 135,000, but with rotations involving another at least 270,000 regular, reserve, and national guard forces going in or coming out.

American losses now stand at more than 1,800 dead and more than 13,000 wounded. The casualty rate and the long deployments have had an adverse effect on recruitment and re-enlistments, thus exacerbating the numbers problem.

The financial cost of the war is hard to calculate because it is all tangled up with the defense budget, which stands above $400 billion a year. The cost of the war itself is estimated to be running at $5 billion a month above the regular military budget, or at $150 billion so far, although the number sometimes used is above $200 billion. The other place to look for the cost is in spiralling U.S. borrowing - $2.1 billion a day just to keep us going - and a national debt that now stands at $7.8 trillion, up $1.4 trillion since the war began.

The impact of the Iraq war on the role of the U.S. Congress as an independent, equal partner of the executive branch of government has been catastrophic: Starting when Congress approved the war without asking the hard questions before the 2002 elections, to date it has basically come up missing as a questioning counterweight to the White House on the subject of the war.

The Republican majorities in both houses have been cowed into silence by the argument that to question the wisdom and fallibility of President Bush and the White House on the war is to put into jeopardy the political roll that the Republicans have been on since the 2000 elections. The Democrats in the Congress for the most part have manifested a comparably placid response to the war, living in mortal fear of being accused of being inadequately supportive of our forces and insufficiently patriotic while America is at war.

Congress' approach to administration requests for money is, "How much do you want?" It's not, "More money for what?" Again, a manifestation of spinelessness and abdication of duty to the role assigned it by the Constitution. Even the question of war profiteering by U.S. companies, and not just Halliburton, gets a pass from Congress, again, presumably, in the name of not breaking American solidarity while the country is at war.

The impact of the war on Iraq is disastrous. Iraqi deaths stand at an estimated 25,000, the majority from fighting among Iraqis, not U.S.-inflicted casualties. Saddam Hussein's government was unquestionably repressive and cruel, but it kept this very fractious country united.

The administration's quiescence in the face of hardening Kurdish separatism in the north and the increasingly independent position of the majority Shiites in the transitional government in Baghdad, reinforced by its growing alliance with Shiite Iran, is alarming in its implications for the future of an Iraq with the United States no longer in militarily dominant residence.

Ironically enough, the Sunni insurgents get it, and are pounding the Shiites and the Americans on that basis. They know what the stakes are, having dominated Iraq since after World War I. They also believe that, without the Americans to protect them, the Shiites and the Kurds can be brought back under their yoke.

One question then becomes, "Exactly how is it in the American interest to prevent that outcome?"

In the meantime, economic development, not to mention oil production and export, are virtually stalled in a war-torn Iraq. The idea that Iraqi oil production was going to finance the American war that our allies wouldn't touch, unlike the 1990-91 war which they financed at nearly 90 percent, has joined the other pre-war fictions - weapons of mass destruction, a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, a rose-strewn welcome, a thirst for democracy - in the boneyard.

For the Middle East, 2005 Iraq is different from 2003 Iraq in that the country and its armed forces, as such, no longer present a threat to Israel. Whether the international greenhouse of terrorism the war has turned into presents over the long haul a bigger threat to Israel and to regional peace than Saddam's ramshackle republic did, is a story as yet untold.

As for the world, it is hard to calculate the impact of what is going on in Iraq. There are indications that more and more apprentice fighters and terrorists from around the world are now involved in the Iraq Sunni insurgency. The majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni - an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent. Given the couple of decades it took the United States to recover in terms of world opinion from the Vietnam War, there is every reason to believe that the melody of this one will linger on also, long after the song has ended.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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