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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2003 / 17 Tishrei, 5764

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Don't count on oil spoils | EAST LANSING, Mich. — With states' budgets in crisis, being president of a large public university is even more difficult than it is when, as the saying goes, campus preoccupations are parking for faculty, football for alumni and sex for students. So it might have been a relief for Peter McPherson, president of Michigan State University, to spend five months in Iraq overseeing economic reconstruction.

McPherson, a former banker, is not a novice in government service at the national level. He served in the Ford White House, then headed the $6 billion Agency for International Development and was President Ronald Reagan's deputy secretary of the Treasury. Because of McPherson's extensive experience with the challenges of developing nations, it is newsworthy that he has returned from Iraq encouraged. But he is dismayed by what he considers "a seriously bad idea" gaining ground in Washington, not least among Capitol Hill Republicans.

Iraq, McPherson says, has three assets most developing countries lack — a large number of educated people, an entrepreneurial spirit and oil.

All countries, McPherson says, have intelligent people. But Iraq, like some Eastern European nations as they emerged from Soviet domination, also has a sizable cadre of people who have received fine higher educations, especially in technical courses, most of them taught in English.

As Americans on the scene in Iraq have learned to their dismay, under Saddam Hussein's regime, with its focus on warmaking and private enrichment, Iraq's infrastructure decayed much more than was understood by experts exercising their expertise from afar. That Iraq functioned as well as it did is, McPherson believes, partly because it has "an abundance of engineers who held things together with baling wire."

Iraq's second asset, what McPherson calls "an entrepreneurial spirit you can still feel," is a rarity — a pleasant postwar surprise. It exists partly because of an unpleasant aspect of prewar Iraq — pandemic corruption. That was a hard school, always in session, teaching participants how to operate in the interstices of rules and in the shadowy conditions of the black market. McPherson notes that unlike the Soviet Union, Hussein's Iraq never nationalized retailing, which was a whetstone that kept commercial skills sharp.

Oil will eventually lubricate Iraq's financial revival. At least it will unless it provokes shortsighted American parsimony that could have costly political as well as economic consequences.

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Congressional critics of the Bush administration's request for approximately $20 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq are asking why this should be provided largely in grants, as was the case with much of the Marshall Plan aid to war-devastated Europe, rather than in loans to be repaid by oil revenue. Such critics are reflecting, or appealing to, Americans' longstanding — and not unjustifiable — skepticism about foreign aid. The skepticism is heightened when, as now, American government budgets are rationing pleasures and imposing pains.

Furthermore, some critics are reasoning under the influence of yet more instances of faulty prewar estimates, this time concerning postwar Iraq's oil-exporting capacity. The administration spoke of a self-financing reconstruction, with oil revenue paying for everything "relatively soon."

Whether the administration should have known better — it did have in hand a more cautious analysis — is not today's pertinent point, which is: Oil revenue will not be as abundant as was hoped, as early as was hoped. L. Paul Bremer, head of U.S. nonmilitary operations in Iraq, says that for at least the next two years, oil revenue will at best match Iraq's operating expenses.

Iraq already has $127 billion of debt, not counting approximately $100 billion of reparations owed, mostly to Kuwait, from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

This unadjudicated reparations sum might and should be radically reduced. Still, McPherson says that external debt equal to 100 percent of annual GDP is "not sustainable." Germany's debt after World War I, which may have helped put that nation on the path toward World War II, was twice its GDP. Iraq's debt is now four to five times that level.

It would be fun to forgive the debts contracted by a regime that ruled against the interests of the Iraqi people, money owed to nations that opposed the liberation of those people who are saddled with the debt. Fun, but improvident: Chaos in international finance would result from making the validity of nations' debts contingent on the virtues, or continuity, of nations' regimes.

Besides, McPherson says he has spoken with many Iraqis, and "they do not say we came to steal their oil. But if we load them with debt payable by oil revenues . . ." Enough said.

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