In the months leading up to the recent war in Iraq and in its aftermath, Bush administration officials were forced to continually change their rationale for launching the attack to topple Saddam Hussein. Where they have not wavered, and where they have received consistent support from top Pentagon military commanders, is in their insistence that Iraq is not another Vietnam, not a quagmire. The further the U.S. and the world move from the fall of Baghdad on April 9th, the more it seems that the administration is correct: Iraq is not a quagmire. It is really a black hole.
A quagmire is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as (1) “land with a soft, muddy surface” or (2) “a precarious or difficult situation.” In either definition, circumstances are not irreversible. A “soft muddy surface” suggests something more solid somewhere beneath, while “difficult” is not the same as impossible.
But media reports the last week in August have made it very clear that the administration has plunged the United States over the lip—what is called the “event horizon”—of the human and financial black hole that is post-war Iraq. The significance of passing the astronomical event horizon is that whatever crosses it, even light, cannot recover or be recovered. It is a one-way trip down a “tunnel” at whose end there is no light, only crushing gravity.
Consider the human costs of the Iraq adventure to date:
The financial aspects of the black hole that is post-war Iraq are astronomical:
In March, even before Baghdad fell, a non-competitive contract to rehabilitate Iraq’s oil fields, with an upper limit of $7 billion, was awarded to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, by the Army Corps of Engineers. (As of the end of August, Halliburton had already been paid $700 million for oil field work, according to information the Corps provided the Washington Post.) As recently as June, the CPA had said Iraq’s oil production would return to pre-war levels by the end of August. In July this slipped to October; now it has slipped to October 2004. Yet as early as March 27, one week after the war began and well before any evaluation of the condition of the oil infrastructure was possible, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz assured the House Appropriations Committee that oil would be Iraq’s self-financing rebuilding engine: “We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”
Facing an ever-growing black hole from failed oil revenues, the CPA unveiled in late August its latest gambit to revive Iraq’s economy: opening the country to outside investment. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, according to the New York Times, reacted very cautiously. Even though it nominally will have the opportunity to review major investment offers, there is concern that traditional industries, rendered relatively inefficient by 23 years of war, sanctions, and under-investment, would quickly be swamped by new factories, throwing more people out of work in a country where unemployment hovers near sixty percent.
Indeed, food and agriculture, services, and manufacturing are among major segments of the economy not exempted from foreign investment. What the CPA’s scheme does exclude are natural resources (including oil), basic services (electricity, water, and sewage) and areas that would remain under CPA control because of “national security” reasons (e.g., “retraining” members of Iraq’s former intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, to work for the CPA). Moreover, the CPA’s proposal omits any requirement for investors to reinvest their profits in Iraq. This sets up conditions similar to those in post-Soviet Russia when billions of dollars were exported and stashed in foreign banks while the economy plunged.
While foreign investment is generally considered a plus for economic growth, the terms of the CPA plan seem to run counter to recommendations of the Pentagon-appointed review group that visited Iraq in late June to assess conditions. Headed by former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, the panel put economic development as the third of seven priorities (behind public safety and greater Iraqi involvement in reconstruction efforts). Specifically, it recommended:
Private foreign investment will not be interested in any of these areas as economic return would be minimal, if any, and not worth the risk given the lack of security in Iraq.
One characteristic of black holes is that they grow in size as they absorb energy from the surrounding cosmos. Iraq has already snuffed out thousands of lives and absorbed tens of billions of dollars. President Bush reiterated that a “substantial commitment of time and resources” still lies ahead.
Yes, Iraq is not a quagmire. But at a time when U.S. budget deficits of $401 billion this year and $480 billion for 2004 are forecast, Iraq looms as an ever-expanding funnel into which human lives, human talent, and monetary resources are being poured, never to be recovered. That, by any measure, defines a veritable black hole.
Colonel Daniel M. Smith, USA (Ret.) is a graduate of the the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Armed Forces Staff College, and the Army War College. He retired from the Army in 1992 after twenty-six years service.