Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Iraqi welfare

Kevin Drum today calls attention to an interesting column by William Saleten in Slate that equates the war in Iraq with welfare and uses some of the Republican’s own arguments against them.

President Bush explained how he plans to get our troops out of Iraq. "Our strategy can be summed up this way," he said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

I've heard politicians say this sort of thing before. But the politicians were liberals, and the downtrodden people they talked about were needy Americans. As these folks learned to support themselves, government would no longer need to support them, the liberals promised. As the poor stood up, we would stand down.

For 40 years, the central argument of the Republican Party—George W. Bush's party—was that liberals had it backward: If you prop people up, they'll never stand up, and you'll never stand down. You have to let go. As you stand down, they'll stand up.

Which brings us to the occupation of Iraq. In blood and money, it's fast becoming the most expensive welfare program in the history of the world. Like other welfare programs, it was a good idea when it started. Like other welfare programs, it has begun to overtax the treasury and the public. Like other welfare programs, it warps the behavior of its beneficiaries. But in one respect, it's unique. It's the one welfare program conservatives can't criticize or even recognize, because they're the ones running it. ...

Saleten goes on to argue that one reason for the drop in public support for the war is because people are beginning to see that it has turned into a huge welfare program for the Iraqi people.

Is it any mystery why polls have turned against the occupation? The people being polled are Americans. The people deriving a "better life" are Iraqis. Bush spent half the speech obscuring this gap. He equated Iraqi terrorists with the 9/11 hijackers and kept insisting that we're fighting for "our" freedom and security. But that spin lost its force long ago, when Saddam's weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, forcing Bush to reframe the war as a democracy-spreading project. It's a noble war, but it's noble because it's altruistic. And people get tired of altruism....

He goes on to note that setting a timeline for withdrawing our troops would prod the Iraqi politicians to stop their bickering and get busy making the tough decisions and compromises necessary to become self-supporting.

The elections were five months ago. What have the assembly's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders done for the past five months? Bickered over every petty dispute. How much of the constitution have they drafted? Zip. Why are they bickering instead of buckling down? Because they can. Because they don't have to cut fast deals, meet the deadline, and give every faction a stake in the government to hold off the insurgency. They don't have to do these things, because 140,000 American troops are propping them up.

If welfare causes dependency for poor people in the inner cities, then the same logic applies to the security welfare we are providing for the Iraqi government. We can continue to provide them with truckloads of foreign aid, but its time for them to step up and take charge of their own security situation. And the fact is they will have little incentive to do so until we give them a real deadline for withdrawal.

This isn't our story. It's the Iraqis' story. They have to write it, and they have to start by drafting a constitution in six weeks. If they think Uncle Sam will prop them up till the job is done, the job will never get done. That's what conservatives used to understand about big government, before they started running it.

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