Getting Iraq to Pay More Is Not the Answer

Congress should stop blaming the Iraqi government for our economic woes. As our economy sputters to a halt and Congress is set to spend an additional $160 billion on the war, U.S. lawmakers are openly criticizing the Iraqi government for not paying the bills.

New legislation for funding the Iraq War includes language demanding Iraqis pay for half of future reconstruction and provide subsidies for fuel purchased by the U.S. military.

Such calls by lawmakers ignore the fact that the financial hardship our nation is suffering has much more to do with our own housing mess and with the high costs of the war than with the Iraqis not paying their way. And as a matter of fact, a recent audit by the inspector general for Iraq found that Iraq has spent more than the United States on reconstruction.

Even though the United States has international legal obligations for reconstruction as an occupying power, it has spent less than $30 billion on reconstruction projects over the last five years.

To date, there is little to show for the money spent by the United States for reconstruction.

Iraq’s infrastructure is a disaster.

Electricity, access to water, sanitation, roads and health care are still, in most cases, at levels lower than before the occupation began. Three out of every four Iraqis have no access to basic services, and 20 percent to 60 percent are unemployed. Reconstruction projects have helped U.S. contractors far more than the Iraqi people.

Yes, the Iraqi government certainly deserves criticism. It is highly corrupt, unpopular and unrepresentative.

And, yes, ultimately it is up to the Iraqis to rebuild their own country. But no incentives for reconstruction or reconciliation exist without a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. As long as fighting is still taking place and the country remains occupied by a foreign power that is supporting a handful of political leaders against the rest of the population, any hopes for reconstruction and reconciliation are idle.

Instead of trying to shift the blame to the Iraqis, the U.S. government needs to provide a timetable for U.S. withdrawal and to secure long-term funding for the reconstruction that can get under way once we leave.

Reconstruction is not an impossible task. Iraq has gone through two major reconstruction campaigns during the last two decades: one after the Iraq-Iran war and the other after the 1991 Gulf War. Both times, Iraqis managed to mobilize their human resources and fix the country. They can do it again.

As tempting as it may be to try to make the Iraqis pay the massive bills the war is costing the United States, the best way to reduce the burden of the war and occupation on the U.S. economy is not to find someone else to foot the bill. It’s to stop the war.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.