Infrastructure plan may be modest; Iraqi reconstruction flawed—still

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 14 2008 3:44 AM

New New Deal No Big Deal?

The New York Timesleads with a leaked federal government history of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq, and the conclusions, unsurprisingly, are grim. The Washington Post leads with an analysis of President-elect Barack Obama's ambitious "New New Deal" infrastructure construction plan, which may not be as transformative as he suggests given that so many of the projects are for routine repairs of already existing roads and bridges. The Los Angeles Times leads with a news analysis arguing that whatever "change" Obama may bring as president, he will be stymied by a Congress that is reactive, bitterly partisan, and causes as much harm as good.

The reconstruction history, "Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience," totals 514 pages and was compiled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, led by Republican lawyer Stuart W. Bowen Jr. The Times piece—which was a collaboration with the investigative journalism group ProPublica—has some rich detail. In one 2003 episode, Donald Rumsfeld asks how much reconstruction was going to cost, and hears that it could reach into the billions. " 'My friend,' Mr. Rumsfeld replied, 'if you think we're going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.' " The story notes that the United States has so far spent about $50 billion in taxpayer money on Iraq reconstruction. And for all that, "the rebuilding effort never did much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the convulsive looting that followed." And there are lessons to be learned: "The incoming Obama administration's rebuilding experts are expected to focus on smaller-scale projects and emphasize political and economic reform. Still, such programs do not address one of the history's main contentions: that the reconstruction effort has failed because no single agency in the United States government has responsibility for the job." The story is curiously short for a Sunday piece with such a large scope, but if you want more, the Times has posted the entire draft report on its Web site.

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The infrastructure package will have to be started quickly to bring relief to the ailing economy. But that haste will mean the government will have to favor already existing proposals to fix up current infrastructure, rather than building "the stuff of history" like high-speed trains, creating "a clear tension between the need to create jobs fast and the desire for a lasting legacy," the Post writes. Plenty of people quoted in the story, including an unnamed Obama aide, argue that you can do both: start the repair projects quickly and then start to identify more ambitious long-term projects for the second phase. "But that plan assumes that there will be enough money, political will and public support left over after an initial burst of spending to fuel broader investments," the paper responds.

"Polarized, beset by crises, and preoccupied with ideological and regional politics, this Congress followed a pattern all too familiar in the past decade. It railed and wrangled over the nation's toughest problems, but in the end failed to advance solutions," the LAT writes. It unfortunately doesn't advance this argument much beyond that, noting the recent poor performances of Congress in dealing with the financial crisis and auto industry bailout, and offering a couple of contextless quotes from pundits: "The real question is: Will Congress be Congress and slow things down, muck things up and muck things up with too much local politics?" asks one.

The Post has a terrific front-page story on an Iranian case of eye-for-an-eye justice. A young woman who turned down a suitor for marriage was attacked by the spurned man, who blinded and disfigured her by throwing acid in her face. But she won an unusual court case against him: She convinced the judge to sentence him to five drops of sulfuric acid in each eye. The sentence, however, has yet to be carried out.

A Colombian shrimp fisherman was arrested last month and is accused of building as many as 20 submarines designed to ferry cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and Central America, the LAT reports. Colombian police have nicknamed him "Captain Nemo," and a DEA official said the use of submarines in drug smuggling has increased exponentially over the past few years. While the current smuggling boats are fairly small craft, officials worry it could get more serious. "Will they take it to the next level—a fully submersible craft, unmanned with remote guidance capability?" the LAT's fed asked. "The latter has a lot more agencies than just DEA concerned."

Also on the colorful crime beat, the NYT reefers a fun story in the Styles section on a gang of Serbian jewel thieves who have stolen gems worth more than $132 million in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, and Monaco. Police have called them "Pink Panthers," and they're now suspected in a heist at a legendary Paris jewelry story earlier this month that netted more than $100 million more.

We've all made the same mistake. A correction in the NYT: "An article last Sunday about the film adaptation of the novel 'The Reader' misspelled the German expression that means coming to terms with the past. It is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, not Vergangenheitsbewaltigung."

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.