In spite of the "sticker shock" uproar about President Bush's $87 billion emergency request for Iraq and Afghanistan, it is being debated in the House and Senate this week and is expected to pass next week with only minor cuts – fewer garbage trucks here, "no" to a children's hospital there.

Ironically, this request comes at a time when the administration is facing severe criticism from across the political spectrum for its handling of the war's aftermath: the false confidence, the lack of planning, the inadequate forces and the alienation of allies. Even the administration seems frazzled and at odds with itself as the Iraq dilemma worsens.

The request also comes at a time when unemployment in America appears at least to be static but still records the loss – since Bush took office – of some 2.8 million manufacturing jobs; a time when 15 percent of Americans are without any health insurance, and critical parts of the national infrastructure are in perilous states of repair – the electrical grid is the most dramatic example.

Given all that, the $87 billion seems to many excessive, and some members of Congress – with the Democrats in the lead – have looked for ways to cut it back. But as they examine the request, it has begun to dawn on a few that the amount is not too much, but too little.

More than $1 billion is to be allocated for Afghanistan – a woefully inadequate sum. While American troops reportedly have made some progress fighting Taliban "returnees" in eastern Afghanistan, the security situation in most of the country has steadily worsened. This is the place, you will recall, where the administration, speaking out of both sides of its mouth, announced a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild the economy while simultaneously refusing to have anything to do with "nation-building," for which Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had so much contempt.

This is the place where for months we blocked the expansion and wider deployment of a NATO-staffed security force. We feared it might get in the way of U.S. troops looking for al- Qaida. As a result, the effective authority of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, still does not run much beyond Kabul's city limits.

As for Iraq, the target of the cost-cutters is not the whole amount, but only the $21 billion requested for reconstruction. Most of the remaining $65 billion will be spent on U.S. forces, now stretched dangerously thin by Afghanistan, Iraq and other international deployments, such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

I say "dangerously thin" because we might be doing serious, permanent damage to our Reserve and National Guard systems with frequent and long-term mobilizations that already are discouraging re-enlistments.

The bottom line? The $87 billion in the administration's emergency request is not sufficient to meet the United States' obligations for defense and reconstruction. Those obligations were incurred when America went to war. And make no mistake about it, it was the nation that went to war, not just the Bush administration.

However misled by scare stories and faulty, hyped intelligence, a large majority of Americans fully supported, and Congress overwhelmingly approved, the decisions to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq. We don't have the option of saying now that we can't afford it. I think most Americans understand that – even those who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. I was particularly struck by the comments of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun – an early war opponent, now one of the nine who seek the Democratic presidential nomination. She said, "It is absolutely critical that we not cut and run, that we provide our troops with what they need and that we not just blow up that country and leave it blown up; we have a responsibility."

In 1991, the American president urged the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. We then stood by as Saddam slaughtered tens of thousands of those he suspected of taking that advice. That retaliation included the draining of Iraq's great marshlands, destroying the economy of more than 200,000 "marsh Arabs." The dead can't be resurrected, but at this point Congress is still debating whether some of the $87 billion will go to restoring those marshlands – just one of those costly responsibilities.


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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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