Inside the numbers:

Posted: Apr 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Polls galore show solid support for George W. Bush and his leadership in taking on the world's most wanted man, Saddam Hussein. Less known is a parallel set of numbers that sheds light on the intensity of Americans' feelings about war and peace amid condemnation from our "friends" and others across the globe.

To put it bluntly, most Americans want the oil. When asked in our most recent national survey, 54 percent said proceeds from the sale of Iraqi oil should help pay the war's $75 billion price tag once the fighting stops. Only 33 percent said the United States shouldn't take the oil money, while 13 percent had no opinion.

Of course, the war may not end for months. But contrary to what many pundits would have us believe, a longer conflict wouldn't necessarily lower support for Bush's big gamble. One of our pre-war polls revealed that most Americans thought it would last for at least six months anyway.

So it's not too early to discuss what happens to Iraq's precious commodity once the war dwindles to an end. Nor is it unrealistic to believe that Americans will feel just as strongly then about Iraq helping to foot the bill as they do now -- especially when they learn that the United Nations is already standing by, waiting to dip its hand into the nearest well.

A U.N "oil for food" program was already in place long before the commencement of current hostilities. Iraqi oil profits were swapped directly for food to feed Iraqis. Never mind that Hussein is widely believed to have diverted much of this money for his own needs, both lavish and sinister. Now, in light of the war, the U.N. Security Council has voted control of the oil for food program to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for at least the nest 45 days. And the U.S. has at least implicitly checked off on the new arrangement.

What isn't being factored into all this is that the ultimate check-writers for the war -- the American people -- haven't been consulted on the matter. But our poll indicates that they seem ready to reject that give-the-oil-away policy.

No one wants to see innocent victims of this war go without food. And it's to everyone's advantage to see that wrecked nation steer its own political destiny once the killing stops and reconstruction begins. But American taxpayers haven't had a walk in the park either. In addition to bankrolling the whole affair while other countries hold their wallets and speak piously, U.S. citizens also have endured economic recession, braced for the death or injury of its soldiers, listened to the world's catcalls for taking a stand, and generally seen public life turned upside down. Why should they be left holding an empty moneybag for the trouble of bringing new freedom and (hopefully) stability to a long-oppressed people? Why should the U.N.'s role after the war be any more significant than its role while the bullets are flying?

Remember, the U.S.-brokered Marshall Plan revived Europe after World

War II and protected much of it from falling to communism. Who can argue convincingly that the U.N. is better equipped than the United States to properly manage Iraqi oil profits once the war ends? Imagine America paying to oust Hussein, plus rebuild Iraq, while the U.N. waltzes in to happily distribute cash and food that belongs to the Iraqi people in the first place.

Why don't we just tell the U.N. to butt out? We should join forces with Britain's courageous prime minister, Tony Blair, and a few others and do as the victorious allies did after World War II: rebuild a torn world in our own image. Does anyone doubt such a team would fashion a humanitarian program more effective than anything the balky administrative apparatus of the U.N. could muster? After all, it was none other than World War II alliance leader Winston Churchill who drew the current borders of Iraq.

Time to break out the sketchpad again.