CONGRESS IS PREPARING TO consider (finally) the remaining $108 billion in supplemental authorizations to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Previous talking points of the antiwar party--the surge has failed, Iraqis will never reconcile, Iraqi troops won't fight, violence won't fall or, if it does, it won't stay down--have fallen by the wayside as they have been visibly disproven one by one. So the current authorization debate is unlikely to see serious renewed attempts to legislate military failure by imposing a timeline, denying funds for our troops, or attempting to micromanage the deployment and/or use of American forces in a combat zone. The new talking point is that the war costs too much, America's economy is in trouble, Iraq is a an oil-rich nation, and we must make the Iraqis pay.
As is so often the case with the antiwar party, this talking point proceeds from assumptions that are false:
* That the Iraqis are not paying their share, do not want to, and can only be forced to so by act of Congress (an argument similar to previous claims that only hard timelines and Congressional threats would force the Iraqis to pass laws, fight militias, and so on, all disproven);
* That the United States is spending money to build schools and hospitals in Iraq when we need schools and hospitals here at home; and
* That we are spending money in Iraq for the benefit of Iraqis rather than Americans, and that it is fit that the Iraqis spend the money or, alternatively, acceptable if the money isn't spent at all.
The reality is:
* The U.S. foreign assistance budget for Iraq has dropped from $16.3 billion in 2004 to a programmed $1.2 billion in 2008; the Iraqi capital budget has grown from $3.2 billion to $13.1 billion in the same period;
* Actual Iraqi spending has risen from $1.2 billion out of $5 billion programmed in 2005 to $4.7 billion out of $10.1 billion programmed in 2007--doubling the budget execution rate in three years;
* Iraqi budgeting for Iraqi Security Forces has risen from $1.6 billion in 2004 to $9.0 billion in 2008--nearly a 500 percent increase; American budgeting for the ISF has dropped from $5 billion in 2004 to $3 billion in 2008--a 40 percent decrease;
* U.S. assistance money in Iraq is not going to build any sort of permanent infrastructure--hospitals, schools, electrical grid, etc. It is focused instead on the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP--more about that below); on building the capacity of Iraq's government institutions to spend Iraq's money; and on developing the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces to take responsibility for Iraq's security--all essential elements of creating the conditions for a responsible reduction in American forces over time; and
* The U.S. is not spending money in Iraq to make Iraqis happy--all American aid programs are designed to help America's soldiers succeed in their fight against al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias.
It is particularly odd that the antiwar party that has been so loudly trumpeting the need to use soft power rather than hard power is now attempting to undo years of effort to develop a sophisticated political-economic-social-military program in Iraq to secure America's objectives. Having failed to force American troops out of Iraq, Congress is now trying to strip them of all the enablers they need to win. And it is not scare-mongering to state a fact that any brigade commander in Iraq will bear out: cutting off assistance, particularly the CERP money that brigade commanders rely on to establish and maintain good relations with local populations who reciprocate by helping track down terrorists and protect key infrastructure (including the "concerned local citizens," now renamed "Sons of Iraq" who are the lynchpin of this effort), will lead to more American casualties.
General Petraeus and many other commanders have repeatedly said that in this war dollars are the best bullets. Why would Congress want to take the best non-lethal weapons out of the hands of our soldiers and force them to use their guns and risk their lives unnecessarily? What sense does it make to hector the Iraqis about their failure to spend their own money and simultaneously cut funding to the American efforts to help the Iraqis do exactly that? How can a political leader simultaneously bemoan the fact that the Iraqi Security Forces are not "stepping up to the plate" adequately and then propose to eliminate resources American soldiers and civilians are using to help the ISF fight better? It is very hard to see in such incoherence anything other than political cynicism.
That having been said, there are some things that Congress could reasonably do and some things that would seriously harm America's interests in Iraq and the world.