Iraqis on the Sidelines

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

October 24, 2003

In pressing their request for nearly $20 billion for reconstructing Iraq, Bush administration officials have been invoking the Marshall Plan, as President Bush himself did when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last month. L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, did the same when testifying before Congress. In fact, however, such invocations are highly misleading, and the Congressional conferees who are shaping the final version of the Iraq appropriation bill would do well to review what made the Marshall Plan a success—and how the Bremer plan may be headed for failure.

The Marshall Plan’s hallmark was the requirement that European countries work together to devise a plan for postwar reconstruction. Remember George C. Marshall’s words in 1947: “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe.”

The goal was not only to rebuild Europe but also to encourage former adversaries to form partnerships that could endure after United States assistance ended. The plan succeeded so well that Europe has followed the road of cooperation all the way to the European Union.

But Marshall’s central insight is missing in the proposal before Congress. Under the Bremer plan, Iraqis need not do much of anything except sit back and watch American occupiers and contractors decide how to rebuild their country. There is no requirement that Iraqis—Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, Turkmen—resolve their differences and together plan to rebuild. That means there is no opportunity to improve Iraqis’ capacity for standing the country on its own feet.

The Bremer plan recalls the cold war era, when the United States pumped billions into corrupt dictators’ coffers and asked questions later. A return to this failed approach is odd in an administration that promised last year to revolutionize foreign assistance through the Millennium Challenge Account. To get Millennium Challenge money, a country’s government and its nongovernmental organizations will have to work together, will have to relate their program requests to their larger national development strategies, and will be held accountable for the results.

The Millennium Challenge philosophy should be applied to Iraq’s reconstruction. The Iraqi Governing Council, and the Iraqis themselves, would decide where the money was needed most. Iraqi businesses would be in a better position to compete directly for contracts, and hiring local companies through transparent bidding procedures would help control costs. Instead, under the current plan, Mr. Bremer and the coalition authority will dole out contracts worth almost double what the American government spends annually on all foreign assistance, and the United States will be no closer to establishing a united and self-sufficient Iraqi government.

The Marshall Plan was also devised to be finite in cost and duration. Congress authorized and appropriated the money after careful review each year. The goal was to give Europeans a limited window of opportunity, not a limitless gravy train, and to give the American people a clear voice in the plan’s operation. In contrast, the $20.3 billion proposal for Iraq and Afghanistan is a multiyear request masquerading as an “emergency” supplemental, meaning that lawmakers get to vote only once, and after a relatively hurried period of consideration.

More important, the money is but a small fraction of what will be needed to rebuild Iraq. Last month, the Bush administration estimated the cost of reconstructing Iraq could be as much as $75 billion. Bush officials say, optimistically, that $12 billion of that could come from Iraqi oil revenues, and hope American allies will provide the balance. Yet only a little more than $3 billion in grants had been pledged by yesterday, the start of donors’ conference in Madrid. Shouldn’t lawmakers know where the balance of reconstruction funds will come from before they approve the first installment? That doesn’t mean, however, that they should bend to pressure to transform some of the proposed grants into loans, which would further cripple an Iraq that already has more than $100 billion in debt.

We cannot afford to fail in Iraq. Congress has a responsibility to examine the president’s request thoroughly—and it should heed the central lesson of the Marshall Plan and use Mr. Bremer’s billions to help unite Iraqis in rebuilding their country.

Note: An earlier version of this opinion piece appeared on the Brookings Web site the week of October 20.