The Bigger Dig

The hardest thing I do these days is explaining to my European friends why the re-election of George W. Bush in the autumn still seems more likely than not, even though events of the last few weeks have made it clear what a hash the Bush Administration has made of its occupation of Iraq. It is hard enough explaining this to myself!

Even those of us who were sympathetic to the desire to intervene — I associate myself here with journalists such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times and the late Michael Kelley of The Atlantic Monthly — must be aghast at the way things have turned out so far.

And while the mistakes that the Pentagon has made on the ground are startling, they pale in comparison to the over-arching financial miscalculation that was made at the very beginning in the White House.

Wars cost money. Victories are even more expensive, at least for a time.

Yet, going into the war, the Bush Administration cut taxes instead of raising them — not just once, but twice.

The fiscal reasoning behind the decisions, insofar as it is known, seems to be no more elaborate or arcane than the familiar rivalry between sons and their fathers (which sons inevitably describe as “learning from their fathers’ mistakes.”) George H. W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes slightly in 1990 on the eve of the first Gulf War cost him the presidency two years later. George W. was determined not to let that happen to him.

Indeed, readers with not-so-long memories will remember how, on the eve of the war, Bush fired Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey.

O’Neill’s sin had been to oppose the administration’s second round of tax cuts (he was hesitant about the first). Lindsey had gone public with an estimate of the cost of the war — an “upper bound” cost of $100 billion to $200 billion.

Already the intervention has cost $160 billion — $75 billion a few days after it began last year, and an additional $87 billion six months later. Hardly a day goes by now without another story about the need for another $50 billion to $75 billion to cover current costs. The Administration hopes to avoid sending such an appropriation measure to Congress until after the election — by jiggering other Pentagon accounts.

Moreover, that money is for the most part financing only the U.S. Army in the field — its various building and training projects as well. By all rights, Americans should be paying the Iraqi army, too.

It was foolish in the extreme to think that we could fire the Iraqi army and police, run unemployment up to around 40 percent among men, leave stacks of weapons lying around, ignore the most important clerics in the country, and expect things to go smoothly.

Those with long memories will also remember how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fired retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner after just a month on the job as U.S. administrator in Baghdad — the day after Garner had called for immediate elections.

“I just thought it was necessary to get the Iraqis in charge of their destiny,” Garner told the BBC in an interview last month. Rumsfeld wanted to undertake a massive American-run privatization of government-owned assets first. (It has turned out to be greatly resented.)

Interestingly enough, an otherwise-excellent survey by a team of Wall Street Journal reporters of the various errors of judgment that have led to the current mess omitted the Garner firing altogether, even from the timeline of 30 “key events” since the Americans moved into central Baghdad that accompanied the article. (The list had been supplied by the Council on Foreign Relations.)

“Early American Decisions on Iraq Now Haunt American Efforts/Officials Let Looters Roam, Disbanded Army, Allowed Radicals to Gain Strength” was the headline on the persuasive article by Farnaz Fassihi, Greg Jaffe, Yaroslav Trofimov, Carla Anne Robbins, and Yochi J. Dreazen.

The omission of the Garner episode, however, illustrates a basic fact of war, the well-known fog that attends developments as they unfold. It affects journalists too. Things happen on the fly. Always the emphasis must be on the goal at hand. Hardly anything is ever perfect, and many things are deeply flawed. Later there will be a chance to correct mistakes (unless, of course, they involve the loss of life and limb, as they so often do).

In this case, The Wall Street Journal team’s emphasis was on “What the U.S. now needs to do.” Their battlefield policy prescription: “Reach a quick understanding on Iraq’s political future with the country’s Shiite political establishment, fix Iraq’s own security forces and convince Iraqis their lives are improving.”

The Journal can do a story about the Jay Garner affair some other day. (He is, incidentally, not clamoring for attention like former national security specialist-turned-author Richard Clarke, nor spinning his wheels like the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.)

Which brings me back to the election in the fall.

Having toted up, however briefly, the astonishing string of miscalculations, missteps and failures on the part of his administration, how then could Americans possibly re-elect the wounded George Bush? The answer has two parts.

One problem is that the Democrats have put up a weak nominee. John Kerry is a very attractive individual in many ways, but after more than 30 years in public life, he is still is identified with no more complicated position than that when young, he experienced war and then vigorously opposed it.

Kerry may succeed in transmuting his youthful ambivalence into steely resolve. More likely, he will be torn apart by those who, committed to one stance, feel betrayed by the other.

Would Howard Dean have done better? I persist in thinking that he would. Certainly he understood better that the issue was not so much the economy itself but rather the state of the public portion of it. Kerry, with his “Middle-Class Misery Index,” is zeroing in on the economy at the very moment that it is getting better.

Then again, in truth, Dean seemed awfully close to embracing the one position that, in this election, nearly everyone recognizes was doomed to fail, nicely summarized as “cut-and-run.” We’ll never know whether he could have wised up if he had survived the primaries.

The other reason that Bush may win re-election is that Americans love a psychodrama, and the Bush family saga still contains the possibility of redemption. “I am amazed at how much smarter my dad is now than he seemed a few years ago” is a line we haven’t yet heard from Dubya. Perhaps we never will. After all, he never went around calling his father stupid in the first place.

So in certain respects, I explain to my European friends, Americans think of the war in Iraq as being rather like the Big Dig, the traffic-easing pair of tunnels under Boston that went famously over budget in the course of its fifteen years’ construction.

Like the war, the Big Dig was technically challenging.

It became caught up in political gamesmanship almost as soon as it began — the Reagan White House routinely took out of its budgets the inflation adjustments and maintenance reserves that the project designers had put in, thereby assuring that the cost would soar disproportionately.

Mistakes were made, heads rolled, lessons learned. But in the end, the project was financed to completion and opened more or less on time. Increasingly, it seems likely to be judged a great success, even if it cost far more than it should have, even if it has made it far more difficult to undertake such federally-funded mega-projects in the future.

The point is that nobody ever lost an election over the Big Dig. Voters let the politicians who planned and managed the project stay the course. An exception to this rule of thumb was the Vietnam War, of course, which was surely the Biggest Dig of all. But Vietnam was very different from Iraq.

The intervention in Iraq is not about rerouting traffic. But neither was it ever entirely a matter of weapons of mass destruction. It was about removing a brutal dictator who had waged war to his neighbors, diminished the living standards of his people by as much as 90 percent in twenty years, and who, thanks to oil revenues, possessed the means to prolong the bitter quarrels of the Mideast, including the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians. And, until it became apparent how little the American command understood the need to immediately let the Iraqis take charge of their own destiny, their occupation was welcomed.

The Wall Street Journal team’s assessment of the situation in Baghdad is almost certainly correct. The situation there can be redressed. Iraq is not a Pottery Barn, and Colin Powell’s dictum would be better rendered, “You broke it, you fix it.”

The fiscal mess the Bush administration has contrived is a much bigger problem. It is the Biggest Dig of all, because it subsumes all the others — the cost of the Iraq campaign, of rebalancing the Social Security System, of incorporating a pharmaceutical benefit in the Medicare program, of extending basic health insurance to all Americans. But given the urgency of the situation in Iraq, probably this Biggest Dig will have to wait until 2008 before it is deemed the overriding issue.

Almost anything could happen between now and November. Both Kerry and Bush are campaigning hard. Then on Election Day, a sizeable number of Americans will hold their noses and mark their ballots. No matter who wins, a majority of voters are not going to be pleased with the outcome. The new president, whoever he is, will have nowhere to go but up.