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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Closing in on Vietnam

IT IS $80 billion and halfway home to Vietnam.

The fresh $80 billion just requested by President Bush pushes the war costs of Iraq and the amazing shrinking asterisk of Afghanistan (Osama been where?) past the $300 billion mark.

The estimated cost of Vietnam in current dollars was $584 billion, according to the Congressional Research Office. Iraq has already cost more in current dollars than either the Civil War or World War I. It is about to pass the Korean War. We are on pace to pass Vietnam in two or three years.

As Bush appears dead set on certifying Iraq's elections, even if it has the credibility of the Florida recount, his $80 billion brings us closer to certifying Iraq as, in financial terms, the most terrifying war on terror in American history.

Americans were made to believe we could defuse the most dangerous nation on earth in a bargain-basement rout. When former White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay dared to suggest that an invasion would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion, White House budget director Mitch Daniels popped up to say the estimate was ''very, very high."

Daniels gave a cost of between $50 billion and $60 billion. Lindsay's estimate was also attacked by former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill who said, ''I don't know what Larry was thinking."

There was General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who dared to say in a Senate hearing that ''something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be required after the invasion to maintain ''control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems." Shinseki said, ''It takes significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment to ensure that the people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz rebuked that sober assessment. He said Shinseki was ''wildly off the mark."

With each supplemental request, Iraq becomes the most wildly off the mark mission since Vietnam, making the neo-cons the biggest con artists of our generation.

Once they were looking for Osama. They forgot him trying to find Saddam Hussein. They claimed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction pointed at American air ducts and waterways. Instead we became as big a weapon of mass destruction as Saddam ever was -- assuming you believe the thousands of Iraqi civilians needlessly killed in our invasion were in fact human beings.

Vice President Dick Cheney once boasted that American forces would be ''greeted as liberators." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he had ''broad and deep evidence" that once Saddam was captured, his former soldiers would throw down their arms and lock arms in celebration over a free Iraq.

But even the very capture of Saddam did not stop the tailspin of chaos. Nearly two years after the invasion, Iraq more resembles civil war than civil society. There were just as many attacks against US soldiers, Iraqi police, and civilians in the last month, 2,736, as there were in September.

Politically, Bush has nowhere to go but Vietnam. At his press conference Wednesday, he was so bent on displaying the sunny side of chaos, he said nothing in his opening remarks about the US soldiers who died on the single deadliest day of the war for US troops.

On the very same day that Bush said, ''Millions of Iraqi voters will show their bravery, their love of country, and their desire to live in freedom," one of the American unit commanders in Baghdad said the nation's capital was still ''enemy territory."

While Bush was declaring in a most personal way, ''I firmly planted the flag of liberty," Raad al-Naqib, a Baghdad dentist, told the New York Times, ''The Americans, they are part of the terrorism. They are so frightened, anything that happens to them, they start shooting right away."

With the predictions of a protracted occupation becoming more solid by the day, comparisons of Iraq with the costliest war in American history are no longer out of the question.

In today's dollars, World War II cost $2.9 trillion. Yale economist William Nordhaus predicted a long conflict in Iraq might cost up to $1.9 trillion. Economist Warwick McKibbin, a board member of the Australian central bank, said a conflict lasting to 2010 could cost more than $3.5 trillion.

It is certain that we are there in a massive way until close to 2010. Bush said in April 2004 that American forces would stay ''not one day more" than necessary.

But his military's own assessment is that it will take three to five years to train a competent Iraqi security force. Once upon a time, Bush and the neo-cons promised a rout so complete that they talked openly about a ''catastrophic success" in which grateful Iraqis might stampede American troops and create a humanitarian crisis.

The request for another $80 billion only serves to confirm that success was its own catastrophe.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com. 

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