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What $3 Trillion Bought the US

One bit news coming out of Iraq suggests that in at least one respect Iraq has modeled itself after its invaders. It comes as a welcome antidote to the bad news coming out of other places in that part of the world.

In Bahrain where the United States Fifth Fleet is docked when it’s not sailing around protecting the United States’ vital interests, the Bahrain royal family whom the U.S. been supporting for almost 50 years, took offense at the notion that its people might favor greater freedom, similar, perhaps, to the freedom enjoyed by its benefactors. It expressed its offense by killing and clubbing demonstrators who were peacefully expressing their hopes for those greater freedoms. As of this writing, the Bahrain royal family has said it’s sorry for having clubbed and killed those peacefully seeking greater freedoms and now wants to talk with its citizens. That makes those not clubbed and killed feel a bit better.

Another good friend that disappoints is Afghanistan, the country into which the United States continues to pour money and blood. Although the war there is not going as well as one might wish, in at least one respect, Afghanistan is doing exceptionally well. According to Transparency International’s annual list of corruption in 178 countries that was published in October 2010, Afghanistan is number 176. The downside is that unlike some scoring systems , the higher the number, the worse the result. Only two countries on the list are more corrupt than Afghanistan: Myanmar, formerly known as Burma (home to the almost perpetually house arrested Aung San Suu Ky) and Somalia, a country which as far as can be determined, has been without a government of any sort for years. With all that dismal news and the uprisings in other countries in that part of the world, news from Iraq offered a bit of relief.

Although random attacks in Baghdad and outlying areas continue at an alarming rate and a day of rage was planned for February 25 to protest a lack of government services in the city, in at least one respect Iraq is adapting to the United States way of doing things-assigning blame when bad things happen. In mid-February, Hakeem Abdul Zahra, a spokesman for the city of Baghdad, said the invasion of Iraq by United States forces inflicted considerable damage on Baghdad. This does not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen television footage of what went on in that country after it was invaded in 2002. What is surprising is that it took almost 10 years for any Baghdad official to point this out. Equally surprising it that the damage about which he complains is limited to the erection of blast walls and the use of humvees within the city limits of Baghdad. Damage inflicted by bombs was not mentioned. In demanding payment of damages of $1 billion and an apology, Zahra said: “The U.S. forces changed this beautiful city to a camp in an ugly and destructive way, which reflected deliberate ignorance and carelessness about the simplest forms of public taste. Due to the huge damage, leading to a loss the Baghdad municipality cannot afford. . . we demand the American side apologize to Baghdad’s people and pay back these expenses.” Elaborating on his concerns he said that sewer and water systems have been damaged by the heavy walls that were erected to protect against the force of blasts, humvees that were carrying troops did not always stay on roadways but sometimes drove on median strips and through gardens, ruining the vegetation. These violations Sahra said, caused “economic and moral damage.”

In the overall scheme of things, the amount being requested by Zahra is modest. Although different analysts assess the cost of the war in Iraq differently, it seems fairly clear that any way the amount is calculated, the war has been an expensive undertaking. In an analysis by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes in the Washington Post last September, the overall cost was estimated to be $3 trillion. The Cost of War analysis is somewhat more modest, placing the cost at just under $800 billion. Whichever figure you believe, what the city of Baghdad is requesting is a modest amount. Using the Cost of War analysis, the damages sought are only 1/800th of the total cost of the war and that does not seem like an unreasonable request for reimbursement.

The request proves that the Iraqis are good students. In the United States there is a belief that when bad things happen it is someone else’s fault and the offending party should be made to pay. That is true even if the offending party was trying to help the party aggrieved. The planned Day of Rage suggests that Iraq may not have learned from its invaders how to govern. Zahra’s demand suggests it has at least learned to assert its rights when it believes it has been wronged. Time will tell whether that is a good thing.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is an attorney in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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