Is this any Way to Rebuild Iraq?

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The country has a huge budget surplus. Why isn’t it paying for its own reconstruction?

By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

August 15 2008

Across the Middle East, from Abu Dhabi to Yemen, the dizzying rise in oil prices has fueled a construction and employment boom. Yet in Iraq, one-quarter of the population remains jobless, and Baghdad gets only 11 hours of electricity a day. Four million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes and are urgently in need of resettlement. After five years of war, the country is still desperately in need of rebuilding. 

Read Bilmes and Stiglitz’ full op-ed in the LA Times.

What Counts as ‘Success’ in Iraq?

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The Boston Globe

By John Tirman

A VOLUBLE attempt to describe the Iraq war as a success is widely apparent, and will increase as the Republican National Convention nears. John McCain is staking his campaign on this assertion. There is little doubt that the level of violence in Iraq has subsided noticeably in the last 12 months. But is this “victory”?

Two notions are in play. First is whether what exists now, or will in the near term, is a favorable and sustainable outcome and is due particularly to the “surge” of US troops since early 2007. Second is whether the price of this outcome is acceptable.

On the first matter, the reductions in violence are mainly due to the withdrawal of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia and the cooperation of many Sunni tribes in ridding Iraq of foreign extremists. A fervent debate among experts is indecisive about why Iraqis pulled back from the wicked killing of 2006 and early 2007. Some is due to a change in US strategy. But all the actors with explosives began to see the futility of their tactics, apparently, and have altered course.

No one knows how sustainable these gains might be. Will Sadr reenter the fray once US troops are drawn down? Will Sunnis return to resistance if Shia political dominance continues?

Civil wars of long standing tend to persist if a broad and enforceable political settlement cannot be reached, and so far none is in sight in Iraq. So the prognosis for more armed conflict, perhaps many years in duration at a low level, remains troubling.

One outcome that seems irreversible is the primacy of Iran. This was widely predicted before the war was started, and it is now apparent. All of Iraq’s leaders, including the president, a Kurd, are friendly with Iran and regard it as an important ally. In Bush circles, this new prominence for Iran is never linked to the war, as if occurring by itself.

So the visible political outcome in Iraq (setting aside the original target of the invasion, the nonexistent WMDs) is not usefully described as a success. There is a level of violence and political fragmentation that in other places would not be hailed as victory. And these recent gains may be temporary.

Perhaps more important are the costs of the venture. The facts are sobering. About 5,000 Americans have been killed, including military personnel, contractors, and aid workers. Another 30,000 or more are wounded, and estimates of those with post-traumatic stress disorder are as high as 300,000. The financial costs are estimated to reach $3 trillion eventually.

For Iraqis, of course, the costs are colossal. While there is a dispute among experts about how many Iraqis have died as a result of the war, the numbers range from 200,000 to one million, and very likely a mid-range estimate is correct. The Iraqi government reports one million or more war widows. About 3.5 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war, most of them living in difficult circumstances in Jordan and Syria. A new study from the Brookings Institution labels the refugees – many impoverished – as a “looming crisis” for the entire region.

More than half the school-age children in Iraq cannot attend school, due to a lack of security, and 40 percent have no access to safe water. A survey conducted in 2006 by the Ministry of Health found a doubling of mortality, much of it due to violence but about an equal amount to disease and accidents, indicating a gradual collapse of the healthcare system.

Globally, the run-up in oil prices is attributable in part to the war, which not only devastates developing countries but has also contributed to a food crisis worldwide. The war has distracted the United States from other issues, as the recent Russian muscle-flexing in the Caucasus illustrates.

Since the war is not over, no one can predict where all these gruesome figures and trends will end up. But the price everyone has paid for this war so far has been exceptionally high. The actual political results for Iraqis remain doubtful. To a dispassionate observer, this does not look like “victory.”

The New York Times, May 21
Timothy Egan

Landing in Seattle after a long flight from Texas, I was about to join the exit scrum when the pilot informed us there were five soldiers on board, ending a three-day odyssey home from Iraq. Could we let them pass?

What followed was prolonged applause by all, and a startling reminder to some – oh, are we still at war?

Not only still at war, but deeper than ever. It was one thing for the Iraq war to pass an inglorious five-year landmark in March, longer than any other American conflict except the Vietnam War. But the cost now looks like it will exceed all wars except World War II — with a price tag that could near $3 trillion.

The Iraq war has already cost twice as much, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as World War I, and 10 times as much as the Persian Gulf war, according to a new book by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes. This is in addition, of course, to the more than 4,000 American lives lost, 30,000 wounded and the psychic blows that will ripple through every town that sent a young person off to fight.

Yet, for its prolonged clutch on our treasury and blood, no war as been so out-of-sight, so stage-managed to be painless and invisible. We’re supposed to shop, to spend our stimulus checks, to carry on as if nothing has happened — or is happening. Every now and then we get to rise at a stadium or pause on an airplane. Some sacrifice.

It would have been more fitting for us on that plane to stand aside while a flag-draped coffin was unloaded. At least then, we would get a moment to wonder what it’s like to put a 19-year-old son in a grave, to lose a sister, a spouse, to see war as something more than a parlor game of neo-cons.

In a democracy, wars should be felt by the decision makers — all of us. It starts at the top.

So, in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt said, “This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts.” President Bush made a sacrifice – he gave up golf as an act of solidarity with families at war. The man who has probably taken more vacations than any other American president, who goes on showy mountain bike rides while his Veterans Administration shamefully mistreats broken warriors, who cut taxes while burdening a generation with this overseas cancer, is at ease with his conscience.

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” he said in a bizarre interview with Politico last week. “And I think playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal.”

He then went on, in the same interview, to do his imitation of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. No wrong signal there.

In every way, this president has tried to hide the war. The press chafes because photos of flag-draped coffins are forbidden. But that’s nothing compared to how this administration is trying to turn the public’s eyes away from the pain of the people who feel it most directly, the soldiers and their families.

Suicide rates among returning veterans are soaring. And the administration’s response? Cover up the data. An e-mail titled “Shh!” surfaced earlier this month from Dr. Ira Katz, a top official at the V.A. The note indicated that far more veterans were trying to kill themselves than the administration had let on. It speaks for itself.

“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see,” Katz wrote, in a note not meant for the general public. “Is this something we should address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles upon it?”

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington, who has made veterans affairs her specialty, was furious. “They lied about these numbers,” Murray told me. “It breaks my heart. Soldiers tell us that they were taught how to go to war, but not how to come home. You hear about divorces, binge-drinking, post-traumatic stress, suicide. And the reaction from the president is part of a pattern from the very beginning to show that this war is not costly or consequential.”

Murray is the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran. During her college years, while other students were protesting, she volunteered at a veterans hospital. The odds are, she said, at least one of those five soldiers we applauded on my return plane will suffer severe mental trauma from the war. A recent Rand Corporation study said as much, noting that that 300,000 veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are plagued by major depression or stress disorder.

“Look what we do when there’s a natural disaster — we show the pictures of the victims and open our hearts,” said Murray. “President Bush should do the same thing with the war.”

But that would require bringing out in the open something that has been hidden since the start of this long war — the truth.

By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

One of the sharpest distinctions between the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls is their stand on increasing educational benefits for veterans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton support new legislation that would boost college benefits to levels comparable with the original GI Bill of Rights, enacted more than 60 years ago. They argue that our troops deserve this investment and that the cost – at $3-4 billion annually – is less than the US spends on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a single week.

The original GI Bill enabled 8 million returning World War II veterans to afford an education. The law was simple and democratic: all troops who had served for at least 90 days and received an honorable discharge were eligible. The benefits paid for tuition, lab fees, books, vocational training, housing and a living stipend. Dependents of servicemen killed in action could also qualify. Historians have written about how the bill “reinvented” America after the war – making it possible to cope with the flood of demobilized young men who would otherwise have been desperately looking for work. The bill had far-reaching implications for the country: the number of people earning college degrees tripled; private elitist colleges and universities were forced to open their doors to minorities, Catholics and Jews, and American higher education became a gateway to the professions for the whole population instead of just a finishing school for the upper classes. In the 11 years following the passage of the bill, the GI bill had produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 25,000 dentists and a multitude of other professionals.

The GI bill also provided a big shot in the arm for the US economy. A study by the congressional Joint Economic Committee in 1988 calculated that the US economy grew by $7 for every $1 invested in veterans’ education. This “multiplier” boosted the economy nationwide: educational institutions all over the country expanded, built new dormitories, classrooms and housing for students. Newly educated GIs bought homes (using GI bill housing loans) which laid the groundwork for turning the US into a home owning society.

Veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam were also entitled to decent educational benefits. But the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today get a very raw deal. The soaring cost of education combined with a watering down of the benefits means that current veterans cannot even cover tuition fees at state colleges, let alone books and general living costs. The maximum education benefit today is supposed to cover 70% of tuition at a state institution. In practice the system has so many obstacles that most veterans cannot even obtain this. Each serviceman or woman has to pay a $1200- $1800 nonrefundable contribution when they join the military. But 30% never use any of the benefits – so the government pockets $230 million from enlistees without providing anything in return. Second, National Guards and Reservists – despite having contributed one-quarter of the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan – are not eligible for many of the benefits. Third, the application process is protracted and bureaucratic: more than 118,000 veterans are waiting for their education claims to be processed by VA.

The bill before Congress would cover full tuition and fees at state universities for those who have served at least 3 years, together with a modest cost-of-living allowance – essentially tripling the level of benefits. The bill would also insert some common-sense changes into the system, including allowing veterans to pay the opt-in fee over 2 years instead of one, and expanding eligibility for Guards and Reservists.

The proposal has attracted widespread bipartisan support. But Senator McCain has joined with the White House and the Pentagon to oppose the bill. Their main objection is that the measure is expensive, and would hurt our ability to retain experienced troops.

This argument – like many of our policies on Iraq — is completely myopic. We know that the number one reason young people sign up for the military is the educational benefits. The military is spending $20 billion this year on recruiting, yet even so it is obliged to accept 12% of new recruits with criminal records and 20% who lack a high school diploma in order to meet its recruiting goals. Boosting educational benefits would do more than any other single measure to increase the quantity and quality of military recruits – which is a prerequisite to retaining them in the long run.

Second, the revised GI Bill would help combat the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among Iraq veterans. Already some 120,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans have been treated for mental illness including 68,000 suffering from PTSD. One of the best treatments is to offer a way of integrating troops back into society and education benefits are an effective way to achieve this. The $4 billion price tag is low in comparison to the cost of medical care and disability compensation that would otherwise be paid out each year to these veterans.

Third, a new GI bill is exactly the type of measure we need to combat a deepening economic recession. Unlike money spent in Iraq, money spent on veterans’ education benefits goes straight back into the US economy here at home. During the past 20 years, the gap between the earnings of the college educated and those without a high school education has widened substantially. This means that the economic return from providing education benefits will be even bigger than it was sixty years ago.

The money we spend on a new GI bill should be considered a cost of war. But unlike most of what we are spending, this amount will be repaid many times over.

Linda Bilmes (whose father attended college on the GI Bill) and Joseph Stiglitz (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics) are co-authors of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict”.

New York Times editorial on veterans cites Three Trillion Dollar War

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May 11, 2008
The Suffering of Soldiers

Several years into a pair of wars, the Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to cope with a task for which it was tragically unready: the care of soldiers who left Afghanistan and Iraq with an extra burden of brain injury and psychic anguish. The last thing they need is the toxic blend of secrecy, arrogance and heedlessness that helped to send many of them into harm’s way.

“Shh!” said the e-mail in February from Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health services for V.A., to a colleague. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
Dr. Katz’s hushed-up figure was nowhere near the number he gave to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last year; he said there had been 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007, and denied there was a suicide epidemic. The veterans affairs secretary, James Peake, apologized for Dr. Katz’s “unfortunate set of words” and promised more candor and transparency.

Give some credit, anyway, to Mr. Peake for realizing that there is no hope of denying or wishing away this problem. As the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes made clear in “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” their analysis of Iraq, the medical toll of a war rises in a swelling curve for many decades after the shooting stops. The current suicide figures include a large proportion of aging and ailing veterans of Vietnam. Suffering for that long, on that scale, will not be covered up.

A study by the Rand Corporation last month found that nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or about 300,000, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. About 19 percent reported having a possible traumatic brain injury from these bomb-afflicted wars.

Alarmingly, only half have sought treatment, the study found, and they have encountered severe delays and shortfalls in getting care. The V.A.’s inspector general has faulted the agency’s case management of brain-injured veterans, and a federal lawsuit by veterans’ groups in San Francisco seeks to force the V.A. to streamline and improve treatment.

Fortunately, the solutions are clear: more money for mental health services, closer tracking of suicides and more aggressive preventive efforts, more efficiency at managing veterans’ treatment and more help for their families. If this country gave back to wounded troops even a fraction of the commitment and service that it has received from them, they will be well cared for.

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