"The Right Thing?"

Bush's notion of "the right thing" for Iraq was a disaster for America

President Bush got the country into an unnecessary war on a false basis. The President says he would have attacked and occupied Iraq even if he knew then what he does now—that Saddam had no WMD, no al-Qaeda connection, and posed no imminent threat to the United States; that the war after the war would cost hundreds of billions, kill hundreds of Americans and wound thousands; that we would transform "Saddam's torture chamber" into America's torture chamber; that these acts, this war, this occupation, and our arrogance, would stain our reputation, erode our credibility, leach away our power to persuade, strengthen our enemies, and wear out our forces fighting another losing "political" war—a war from which someday, having spent billions of dollars and lost countless American lives, we will retreat without victory and (having killed so many Iraqi civilians) without honor. "We did the right thing," Bush says. The right thing?

Suppose we had done the wrong thing. Set aside the thousands of human beings who would still be alive, and the grief of those they left behind. Follow the money instead. If we had done the "wrong thing" and not invaded Iraq, how might we have spent the estimated $144 billion the war and occupation have cost to date? How much security against terrorism would that have bought? In an invaluable study, published as chart on the Op-Ed page of the August 8 New York Times, the Center for American Progress supplies some answers.

With the $144 billion we could have spent:

—$7.5 billion, the amount the Coast Guard estimates it would take to secure our ports. (Bush has allocated less than $500 million to securing them).

—$10 billion to protect commercial airliners from the 100,000 or so shoulder-fired missiles "circulating in the world's black markets."

—$5 billion on "state-of-the-art baggage screening machines" to prevent bombs from being smuggled on to planes. (Only eight out of our 440 airports have them now, yet the Bush budget requests only $250 million for the machines this year).

—$30.5 billion to "secure from theft the world's weapons-grade material"—mostly located in the former republics of the Soviet Union.

—$2.5 billion to "expedite the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program," which has helped to "deactivate more than 6,000 nuclear warheads." (The Bush budget, strained by Iraq, allocates only $450 million to Nunn-Lugar).

—$24 billion to add two divisions to the Army, relieving the pressure on the reserves and ending the "stop-loss" orders that amount to conscription for soldiers who have already fulfilled their commitments (makeshifts necessitated by the war in Iraq and that, with troop rotations through a shooting gallery, threaten to "break" the Army).

—$15.5 billion to "double the 25,000 active-duty troops in the Special Operations Forces" configured to hunt down our real enemies—al-Qaeda-connected or inspired terrorists.

—$8.6 billion to rebuild Afghanistan. This would "cover the shortfall between the $27.6 billion it says it needs and the funds the international community has pledged to date"—and "help prevent the country from again becoming a haven for terrorists."

That would still leave $11 billion to pay for crop conversion from opium poppies to food in Afghanistan; $10 billion to increase US aid to the world's poorest countries; $775 million to pay for public diplomacy in the Muslim world (a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission); as well as such odds and ends as $7 billion to hire new police officers, $3 billion to secure roads and railways, $350 million for integrating emergency radio systems, $240 million for fire departments, and $240 million to equip airports with explosive detectors. The wrong thing?

Those Americans—a majority according to the polls—who believe George W. Bush will do a better job handling the war on terror than John Kerry need to ask themselves: How has he handled it so far? Would we be safer today if Bush had not gone into Iraq and instead invested in the buffet of security options listed above? They also need to think about what Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism director, meant when he told the 9/11 commission that, as Bush's obsession with Saddam diverted him from the war on terror ("He tried to kill my dad"), Bush seemed to be "channeling" Osama bin Laden.