CODELs Result in Starkly Differing Pictures of Iraq

Posted October 15, 2003 at 6:03pm

In June, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) led the first Congressional delegation into post-war Iraq. What he found there, he subsequently told the readers of one local paper in his district, was an American military force that “fixes power lines, inoculates babies, opens courts [and] treats water supplies,” among other things. Iraqi children cheered at one point as the convoy passed by.

Alongside Hunter that day was Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). He saw little but incompetent planning and creeping peril. Outside, he said, was a hostile population that despised the occupiers, and as they drove around Baghdad he imagined how easy it would be for someone to “roll a grenade” under their vehicle and “kaboom!”

“I was there so early that the killing had not really gotten under way,” Abercrombie said in an interview last week. “But I could see it coming.”

For months, in the face of a torrent of criticism about the pace of progress in post-war Iraq, Bush administration officials have plied Democratic lawmakers with a simple message: Go judge for yourselves.

At least 25 Democrats have made the trip, nearly all returning with praise for the fortitude and performance of the American troops who have shouldered the greatest share of the burden.

But if White House and Pentagon officials hoped Democrats would return with renewed confidence in the progress of post-war Iraq, the unpleasant reality is that many of those lawmakers have come back more convinced than ever that the Bush administration has botched the reconstruction.

Interviews with nearly a dozen Democrats who have participated in post-war CODELs to the region reveal that party affiliation would seem to be as reliable a predictor of what a Member would see in Iraq as the trip’s itinerary.

Where Republicans have seen successes, Democrats have seen entrenched obstacles. Where Republicans have seen clever improvisation, Democrats have seen seat-of-the-pants management. And where Republicans have reveled in the liberation of 22 million Iraqis, some Democrats have expressed regret about voting to authorize war in the first place.

“I will say that going forward I will not trust this administration with a few winks and nods, or when they tell me there are things they can’t tell me, or when they tell me things were worse [before] than they seem [now],” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who just recently returned from the region. “They have no credibility with me.”

Tauscher, a member of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed any suggestion of progress on the ground, saying, “You only see what they show you.”

On the basis of what he saw, Abercrombie even suggested there was nothing especially pernicious about Hussein’s numerous palaces — cited often by President Bush as a symbol of the former tyrant’s disregard for the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

“They were junk,” Abercrombie said of the structures.

This ambivalence lies in the background as the House prepares to vote today on the Bush administration’s request for $87 billion in emergency funding for operations in post-war Iraq and elsewhere.

Many Democrats who visited the region now find themselves torn between a desire to “help the troops” and a piquant urge to register their disapproval of the administration’s performance in Iraq.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who visited Iraq in August, indicated that he is inclined to vote for the supplemental spending package. But he expressed unease with approving such a large sum when he could see “no clear plan” on the ground in Iraq — a consistent theme sounded by Democrats.

“Going over there you realize that some of the representations made to us as Members just don’t exist,” Pomeroy said, citing what he regards as an overstated threat and understated projected costs.

Similar concerns were voiced by Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who talked about a visit to a major Iraqi power plant that had been producing electricity for Baghdad since 1963. He viewed the dilapidated facility as a symbol of the former Iraqi regime’s lack of investment in the country’s infrastructure. But he wondered why the administration didn’t foresee the extent of the problem — or chose not to convey such information to Congress.

“I’m not saying pass the supplemental because the post-war planning has been a success,” said Larsen, who put the cost of rebuilding the electricity grid at $5.6 billion. “I’m saying pass the supplemental because the post-war planning has been a failure.”

For Pomeroy, the impression of poor management was crystallized in a visit to the makeshift barracks used to house American soldiers at the Baghdad airport. Pomeroy said he found the soldiers “jammed together” in the structure with no air conditioning, while the temperature outside was 133 degrees.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who like Abercrombie had opposed the resolution authorizing Bush to take action on Iraq, said he found American forces that were lacking in many of the basics, such as radio jammers, Kevlar vests and boots. Where soldiers were in need of four changes of uniform, because of the extraordinary heat, Larson said he found that they had only two.

“The over-arching concern for everyone is that we do what we can to support our troops out there,” Larson said. “But what has got everyone seething is the enormous costs and the lack of accountability.”

Larson pointed to the inordinate share of the burden shouldered thus far by the United States.

“What strikes you is that this is an entirely American enterprise,” Larson said. “I mean, where’s that ‘coalition of the willing’?”

President Bush has led officials in asserting that conditions on the ground are in fact far better than they appear in news reports; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, suggested in a recent interview that if Members do not see a plan in effect, then they haven’t been looking.

“My conclusion [from Iraq] is that the weeping and the gnashing of teeth that we have here among some people is understandable,” said Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), who has been an outspoken supporter of military operations in Iraq and participated in one recent CODEL. “But I think it’s important that we be patient and accept that there’s going to be uncertainties in this venture for a while.”

Marshall suggested that Congress should ensure that the administration has the resources it needs to finish the job.

“The folks who are in charge right now seem to be talented, informed and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed on the ground. They’re in there day-in, day-out,” Marshall said. “It seems to me that those of us stuck within the Beltway ought to defer to some extent to their judgment.”