We recently learned that the $30 billion the United States allocated to "reconstruct" Iraq is about to run out. That seems like a whopping amount, until you realize that the World Bank estimates the cost of rebuilding at between $50 billion and $100 billion. This sum does nothing, of course, to compensate Iraqi families for the deaths and immense suffering caused by the invasion.
Withdrawal from Iraq has understandably been the main focus of the peace movement. The problem with this approach is that many concerned Americans have serious reservations about withdrawal, because they fear that we'd be abandoning Iraq to chaos. If, however, withdrawal is linked to hefty reparations payments, this fear could be alleviated. Withdrawal while providing the resources to recover and restore order could lead to domestic peace far more readily than withdrawal by itself.
Reparations are clearly appropriate in an invasion that was justified on false advertising of the Bush administration, which purposely dismissed solid evidence against its dubious claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Before the hardball pundits and opportunist politicians who got us into this mess dismiss reparations as a "non-starter," we should note that there is ample precedent for reparations, the most obvious being that of Iraq itself. Iraq has been forced to shell out more than $19 billion in reparations claims related to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and it owes another $33 billion. The payments, ordered by the U.N. Security Council, have gone to many claimants, including U.S. corporations, according to the U.N. Compensations Commission.
Not only is this battered nation shelling out war reparations, but the budget of Iraq's U.S.-installed (what used to be called "puppet") government calls for expenditures of more than $16 billion for reconstruction through the year 2007. Yes, we break it, they pay for it! It's as if I blew up your house because I thought you thought about blowing up mine with a cache of dynamite I thought you had. Then I'm allowed to garnish your wages to pay me to rebuild your house. Preposterous by any logic -- except maybe that of a Mafia thriller.
War reparations for Iraq have in fact been widely endorsed in the peace movement, but with the focus on getting out, there is very little political push for reparations. For example, United for Peace and Justice, a major organizer of opposition to the Iraq war, has officially called for reparations. Certainly no fringe group, it counts among its 1,400 members such well-known organizations as the National Council of Churches, the American Friends Service Committee and Greenpeace, and others including Veterans for Peace, Working Assets, Tikkun Community and the Catholic Worker Movement. Meeting in Jakarta in 2003, representatives from United for Peace and Justice and the peace movements of more than 20 other nations called for reparations for Iraq. It's time to turn this noble wish into a fierce demand.
Making amends through reparations might also help us regain some of the international respect we have lost. Withdrawal coupled with reparations would also deprive terrorists of their most attractive recruiting tool, hatred of a nation that is perceived to be on a pathological crusade against Islam.
In addition to the strategic and moral reasons for getting out and paying reparations, there's an economic argument: Because we've already wasted more than $200 billion in Iraq, reparations might end up costing us less than staying the course, and less than battling the increased terrorism that the occupation has provoked.
How much is a reasonable amount and how should it be distributed? The money could be deposited in private bank accounts or paid by some other means that minimizes the possibility of fraud. Perhaps $5,000 to each Iraqi (about $100 billion) plus another $50 billion spread over several years for reconstruction seems fair and just. That's $150 billion -- less than we've spent so far on a war we can't win. We can help Iraqis build their own brand of capitalism by investing in each of them -- a Marshall Plan on an individualized basis. That's an exit strategy worthy of debate.
Bob Schildgen writes an environmental advice column for Sierra, the Sierra Club's national magazine, where he was formerly the managing editor. The views expressed here are his alone.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle