Sunday 30 March 2003
Much to her surprise, the federal government is promising to do everything Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters has spent years fighting for.
Education for the neediest souls will be transformed, quality health care will be guaranteed, damaged roadways and bridges will be rebuilt, and millions of dollars will be spent to spur new business.
Waters just never figured the beneficiaries would be residents of Iraq.
A few weeks ago, when I spent several hours with her in Washington as the start of the war approached, Waters had begun to fear the worst.
"I'm very worried about the long-term impact," she said, predicting that as the cost of the war grows, states, counties and cities will get stiffed.
Waters wasn't talking about the weeks and months ahead, but the years and decades to come. The cost of the war and rebuilding Iraq, she said, could drastically limit what government can do.
The effort to turn Iraq into a democracy, in other words, is making the U.S. less of one. Our opposition party has disappeared, corporate interests dictate public policy, and the feds may be rummaging through your e-mail.
There's a dirty secret no one has told you, and here it is: This war is not about changing Iraq, it's about changing America.
Unless you're lucky enough to be an investor in one of the corporations that will win multimillion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq, you may be hurting when the cost of the war and a new era of deficit spending put even more of a drag on the economy.
If you don't earn enough to hit the jackpot on President Bush's proposed tax cuts, you're just going to have to fend for yourself. The whole idea is to train you to expect less and to feel patriotic about it.
If things get really bad, you can always move to Iraq.
"I think it's terribly arrogant and overly ambitious for this president to think he can invade that country, turn it into a democracy, and use American taxpayer dollars to build an infrastructure that still is not built in some parts of this nation," Waters said.
"In addition to that, he wants to go ahead with tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country."
To clarify, Waters isn't against sending American dollars to other countries.
"I believe in foreign assistance, and I think the richest nation in the world should certainly help our neighbors in other parts of the world," she said. "But I dislike the idea that we tear up Iraq first, bombing it to smithereens, and then we go back and put in the water systems, the health-care facilities and the other things we've torn up."
Last week, Waters and the rest of the country got the first bill for Operation Iraqi Freedom when the president asked Congress for $74.7 billion to cover war-related costs. Empire-building isn't cheap.
"That's probably going to underwrite about one month's cost of the war," said Waters. "And it's just the tip of the iceberg."
Waters got nervous when she saw Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, grab one of the first rebuilding contracts before we'd even begun knocking things down. To help prevent a feeding frenzy by corporations with political connections, Waters introduced two amendments.
The first would have put a four-year hold on the awarding of military contracts to companies that helped draft the Iraqi war policy or employed high-level administration officials.
It was shot down like a sputtering Scud.
Waters went back to the drawing board and came up with a softer amendment.
"This time I just said, 'OK, let's say the person who's worked for that company in the last four years can't do the negotiating. He'd have to recuse himself from that discussion.' Now that's as simple as it can get, and they voted against that one, too."
One night last week, I called Waters' Capitol Hill office at 9 p.m. her time and she answered the phone herself, having just returned from a House session.
"I was on the floor for an hour, helping educate people about the cuts being made to veterans' programs," she said.
So let's review.
We're asking 200,000 troops to risk life and limb in Iraq, and the White House and Congress are preparing a welcome-home party by slashing veterans' benefits.
Last week, I visited the Veterans Affairs dorms in West L.A., where I met a Vietnam vet who was wounded six times. He had a brace on his leg and shrapnel scars from head to toe, and he'd finally given up on his fight for enough disability pay to live on.
When I walked away, patients were calling out to me, saying there's no hot water for showers.
Things are not looking good for the future veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By Waters' count, current budget proposals would trim $15 billion from veterans' programs -- something's got to cover those big tax cuts -- over the next 10 years.
And that's if there are no unforeseen costs in the rebuilding of Iraq.
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