New Iraq plan: Spend a lot more

President Bush

KAI RYSSDAL: It'll be another four or five days before President Bush's big speech on Iraq. He said at a press conference yesterday he's still got some more people he wants to talk to about it. But as always happens with these sorts of things, the details are leaking out: Something near 20,000 additional troops in Baghdad, and a new economic aid package for reconstruction and for the Iraqi government. If you think you've heard that bit about more money before, you have. And so have we.

So we called Rick Barton with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington to see what might be different now. Rick, good to have you here.

RICK BARTON: Thank you.

RYSSDAL: A lot of the projects that the U.S. government undertook the first time around — in the first big traunch of reconstruction projects — were huge infrastructure projects: water, and hospitals and police stations. What are we going to do now?

BARTON: Well, first off, those were misconceived. So many, many, many of them became excellent targets for sabotage and for attacks. And so, as a result, they were . . . That's just not what you want to do. You just don't want to build pyramids in the early stages of a post-conflict reconstruction. We really should be trying to find ways to move assistance more directly to people. So, small loans, grants, maybe targeting women as an attractive audience that needs that extra bit of attention. These are the directions that we should go on, but there's still the question of whether the timing is right at this point.

RYSSDAL: the old money that was spent — that $20-21 billion — usually went in huge chunks in no-bid contracts to big American contracting companies. Do you suppose the Administration is going to do it any differently this time around?

BARTON: Very definitely. For one, the large contractors have mostly left the country when the money ran out. And they're not eager to go back. And secondly, the overhead costs were way too great. The money was not reaching the Iraqi people as many had hoped it would. And that has to happen at this point, if it's going to have any value.

RYSSDAL: So much of the old money was wasted, in effect. Went to fraud or is unaccounted for in so many ways by those big contractors. Is it going to be any different now that we're giving the money directly to the Iraqi government?

BARTON: We should not be giving it directly to the Iraqi government, because we know that there's a tremendous amount of corruption right there. When you're in this kind of situation, you don't want to undertake huge projects where the opportunity to steal a lot is much greater. You have to spread it around. Makes it tougher to monitor, but if you spread it around among more of the people, what will be stolen will be reduced but the opportunities to keep track of it are also much harder.

RYSSDAL: Is there an amount of money, do you think, that the White House can throw at Iraq to make the economy better, to get young men off the streets, to develop some sort of infrastructure there?

BARTON: The key issue for the Iraqi economy is security, in the personal security of Iraqis. That kind of insecurity makes it really difficult to do anything more than to get what's already working, working a little bit bigger and a little bit better.

RYSSDAL: What about Congress, though, this time, Rick? It's a new day up on Capitol Hill. Are they going to look a little more closely at this?

BARTON: I think the Congress is likely to question this money. But the military commanders will tell the Congress that, "Don't bother to give us the troops, if you're not gonna give us this." Almost any soldier that's been out there now recognizes that the only way you win in this kind of situation is if you have a highly integrated effort. Yes, we have to provide more security. Yes, we have to do that in many more creative ways. But don't leave a country that has 50 percent of its population under 20 hanging out there without some feeling of progress. Because, that's just the recipe for disaster.

RYSSDAL: Rick Barton's the co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Barton, thanks a lot for your time.

BARTON: Thank you so much. My pleasure.

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About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

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