Congress Eyes Aftermath

Members Seek Major Role in Post-War Iraq

Posted March 28, 2003 at 6:22pm

As Congress appears resigned to remaining largely on the sidelines while U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq, some lawmakers are already signaling their intentions to be the leaders in the design of post-war Iraq.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and ranking member Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said Congress will likely need to pass a series of authorization bills, separate from spending measures covering the costs of the war, that ensure the United States makes good on President Bush’s repeated pledges to rebuild Iraq and bring democracy to the country following the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

“One of the things that Dick and I have been trying to do, together and separately, since last August is get [the White House] to focus on the month, the year, the decades post-Saddam,” said Biden. “How long are we going to be involved in the nation-building piece of reconstruction? It may be that we need an authorization for that.”

Some Members also have been making noises about what they see as the Bush administration’s rush to dole out lucrative reconstruction contracts to hand-picked U.S. companies.

As a result, Congressional leaders are unlikely to allow themselves to be pushed aside on matters they view as critical to the nation’s status and influence in the world.

“This [war] is the hallmark of our new way of doing business in the world in the 21st century, and I’m sure Congress will look to be a partner in that,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide.

Of course, with a White House that has been largely dismissive of Congressional prerogatives, negotiations between Congress and the White House on rebuilding Iraq are likely to get sticky, said American University professor Philip Brenner, an expert on Congress’ role in crafting foreign policy.

“This president, particularly, will be inclined to avoid the authorization process,” said Brenner. “The committees that look at the reconstruction of Iraq are not that friendly to this president. Congress will use this as an opportunity to challenge the president.”

Brenner noted that Lugar has been critical of Bush’s desire to fight the war in Iraq without more international assistance, and that Senate Armed Service Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) has often had difficulties in getting the White House to acknowledge Congress’ role in defense and foreign policy.

In fact, most of the lawmakers who support a strong Congressional role in the reconstruction of Iraq, such as Biden, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have already been critical of either the administration’s treatment of Congress or their diplomatic tactics.

Primarily, their concerns include the Bush administration’s reluctance to consult with Congress on its Iraq plans, the desire by some administration officials to rebuild the Middle Eastern nation without help from the international community, and the administration’s plans to have a U.S. general or Defense Department official run Iraq until a civilian government can be installed.

“My concern is that they’re not as ham-handed in nation-building as they were in coalition-building,” said Biden of the administration’s failure to get the United Nations to bless its attack of Iraq. “We need the international community deeply invested in this, so there’s a sense of legitimacy to what we’re doing. Otherwise, we become colonizers.”

Other Members of Congress, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), also have complained that the White House’s $2.4 billion emergency spending request for Iraqi reconstruction barely touches on the hundreds of billions of dollars that they believe will be needed to accomplish the task.

Biden estimated the total cost to the United States, including rebuilding key buildings, roads, schools and hospitals as well as setting up and funding a new government, could ultimately reach as much as $300 billion.

Noting that no decisions had yet been made, Warner said a Congressional authorization could actually help present a unified U.S. policy toward Iraq.

“There’s a very heavy responsibility that falls upon the American government, and that includes Congress, to fairly take all the steps that follow the cessation of combat,” said Warner. “It would require the legislative branch and the executive branch to work together as co-equals. So it would represent the visions of both branches of government.”

Lugar predicted that any authorization bill spearheaded by Congress could give the administration “a good deal of flexibility.” He warned that Congress would be in relatively “uncharted territory” but that “at some point, we’ll have to figure all these things out.”

In the short term, Congress could include some reconstruction requirements in the State Department reauthorization bill or the foreign aid reauthorization bill this year, said a Lugar spokesman. A separate Iraq reconstruction authorization would likely incorporate the kind of coordination and authorization that was needed to implement the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II, but the Iraq plan would be on a smaller scale, sources said.

Still, no one in Congress has yet begun to draft a bill, primarily because they say it would be premature to do so when U.S. and British warplanes and troops still haven’t finished destroying the infrastructure that will have to be rebuilt when the fighting ends.

Also, questions about whether the United Nations will direct rebuilding (and possibly peacekeeping) efforts prevent Congress from making any clear plans at this point, said Biden.

But some Members are already trying to influence the outcome of those diplomatic discussions as well. A bipartisan group of House Members, made up primarily of GOP and Democratic moderates, sent a letter to Bush last Thursday urging him to engage the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq.

“We believe there is now an opportunity for the United States to shape the U.N. role for delivery of [reconstruction] assistance in post-war Iraq and to effectively work toward consensus in the region and throughout the world,” the House group led by House International Relations subcommittee on Europe Chairman Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) wrote. “Engaging the U.N. at this time is also an opportunity to bridge rifts in our international relationships.”

The brewing controversy over how the Bush administration has been planning to award contracts to U.S. companies for reconstruction efforts in Iraq also is flitting on Congress’ radar screen, and Congress may seek to address their concerns in an authorization bill, said several lawmakers.

Levin dismissed international criticism that all the contracts so far, such as one to Vice President Cheney’s former employer Halliburton to clean up Iraqi oil well fires, have gone to U.S. companies. But he noted that Congress should carefully look at whether the contracts are being dished out competitively.

McCain noted that Congress would have plenty of time to have hearings on how those contracts were awarded after the war ends.

“It’s hard for me to believe that the administration would try anything egregious, because there’s always Congressional oversight,” he said.