Administration of Iraq Must Be Worth Cost

The president’s request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan was received with shock and awe by the American people. The enormity of the price of our efforts in Iraq quickly drew anger and a demand for answers.

The questions came rapidly on Capitol Hill: Could we afford to invest $87 billion overseas when so many needs at home remain underfunded? Would the money secure the lives of our troops? Did the administration have an effective plan for spending these funds, and how much more would be needed next year?

While they invoked rhetorical comparisons to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II, the administration failed to provide adequate detail about the plans for reconstructing Iraq. George C. Marshall brought together our allies and many of the greatest international policy minds of the time to develop a groundbreaking, innovative approach for the post-war era, and then spent more than eight months garnering the support of the American people and Congress, which ultimately passed the plan. In stark contrast, the plan for American involvement in Iraq was rushed through with little to no input from Congress and our allies. 

Despite this, I and many of my colleagues supported the $87 billion supplemental because it was crucial to make the investment necessary to protect and equip our fighting men and women, achieve stability in Iraq, and promote democracy throughout the Middle East. All of these are in our long-term national security interest. But we refused to sign a blank check. We asked hard questions and got some answers, but sadly, the administration has left important inquiries unanswered. Instead, it continues to execute a strategy that may lead to even longer stays in Iraq for U.S. troops and greater demands for funds. Even now, conflicting information and seeming changes in course have left Congress guessing about what’s next. 

Regardless of how Members voted on the Iraq resolution last year or the $87 billion supplemental this year, we all want this mission to succeed. To ensure it does, Congress has two main tasks in 2004: Protect our troops and account for our resources.  [IMGCAP(1)]

Our troops are still very much in harm’s way — the surest and gravest sign that our strategy isn’t working. The cost of maintaining U.S. troop deployments will be handled in next year’s Defense appropriations bill. There are other costs, however, that we must be prepared to address — the cost paid in American lives and in increased burdens on military families, for example. We owe military families more assistance and an answer to their most pressing question — when will the troops come home? Those who have already sacrificed so much deserve a clear plan that makes Iraq more stable and secure than it was in the hands of Saddam Hussein, or is today, and brings them home.

Congress also must focus on the billions we’ve already invested in Iraq, and frankly assess the progress made and results achieved with those funds. Concerns about the $18.6 billion already pledged by the United States and the $50 billion to $75 billion said to be needed remain. However, the most important question in the next six months is: How will we make sure we haven’t wasted money in Iraq that could have instead gone to build our schools, provide health care to our kids, and protect our hometowns? 

Congress must account for every dime of $2.5 billion already spent. As we do that, our work may be further complicated by a possible power transition in Iraq next summer, which was recently reported in the press. This raises many questions. Will the Coalition Provisional Authority, which currently controls U.S. reconstruction funds, be dissolved if and when Iraqis take total control of their government? Will it remain in business as a massive embassy with control over U.S. funds? Or will it simply hand our assistance over to the Iraqis?  

If the CPA is ceding political authority to Iraqis even as we attempt to ensure financial accountability, the United States could risk losing control of — and wasting — billions of taxpayer dollars in Iraq. Congress must demand a detailed plan and timetable for the transfer of power including an explanation of how our reconstruction funds will operate under any new government. Then we must use it to hold the administration’s feet to the fire.

We have a long road ahead. Iraq and the Middle East have taken center stage in our foreign policy, and we know that our national security is at stake. Congress will continue to provide the support that our troops in Iraq and around the world need, while debating how best to create and support stable democratic allies.

In my judgment, our most critical role next year will be one of accountability — ensuring that our troops have the equipment and information they need, and that the massive funds we have already provided are used effectively and wisely. Until this mission is accomplished, we have no business congratulating ourselves on a job well done. 

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) is ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, export financing and related programs.