Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have requested an additional $235 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of more than $350 billion already spent on those conflicts.
Appearing Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, the secretaries sold the president's plans for Iraq, and fielded questions on the logic of the spending and the sheer size of the budget request. "Congress cannot continue to fund failing strategies and failing policies," Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. said. "We need to know that the funds that you are requesting will be more than continue the status quo."
Regular defense spending, not including war costs, now weighs in at a whopping $504 billion. No wonder some members complained of suffering from "sticker shock." "Congress has consistently supported our men and our women in uniform . . . and their families," Byrd said. "But in regards to the failed policies of this administration, this Congress is not blind . . . it is not a rubber stamp . . . or a lap dog."
Byrd's concerns were echoed by other senators who asked hard questions about the Iraq mission itself, the decreasing likelihood that it will achieve the president's stated objectives, and a consideration of alternative policies that might be pursued at less cost and risk to our troops.
But in questioning Gates and Rice, the senators appropriately focused on more than the funding request. Money is only part of the story. Considerable evidence shows that the Bush administration is trying to win the Iraq war on the cheap, and that the pressure previous Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put on our military commanders in late 2002 and early 2003 to limit the size of the invasion force was only the tip of the iceberg.
Senators should ask about the training and readiness of the troops going into Iraq today. They should ask Gates why 60 percent of the enlisted soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division, which will go to Iraq in March, have come right out of basic training.
Are these troops properly trained? Do they have the necessary equipment? Why, four years into the war, are there still not enough armored Humvees? Are these troops rated as combat ready? And will the president attest that it is in the national interest to deploy them if they are not?
Are we keeping our promise to our troops and their families? The hundreds of thousands of men and women of the armed services have a job to do, and they do it well. They are all volunteers, but for the past few years, the Pentagon has employed stop-loss orders to prohibit thousands from leaving the service, even after their enlistment periods have expired.
Pentagon officials have admitted that these policies are in essence a back-door draft and are inconsistent with the principles of voluntary service. Does the president agree?
When our fellow citizens make the fateful decision to don the uniform, we expect them to report for duty when called. But the obligation goes both ways. We as a society must keep faith with our troops. Yellow ribbons on the backs of our vehicles aren't enough. We must train them well. We must provide for their needs in wartime and peacetime. We must do everything in our power to protect them from harm, recognizing all the while that it is their mission to go into harm's way.
If our best efforts to protect them fail, we must put them back together when they are wounded. We must care for them when they are disabled. And we must provide for their families when they are lost forever.
Recognizing that it is impossible to predict precisely what future costs will be, is the president confident that there is sufficient money in the current budget to satisfy our current and future obligations to the troops? And what of the five-year budget projections, which include no money for Iraq after the 2008 fiscal year?
The defenders of the president's Iraq strategy imply that Congress is betraying an obligation to the troops, acting unpatriotically, and advancing al Qaeda's interests by openly questioning the mission. The opposite is true. The president should affirm that his policies are consistent with his responsibilities as commander in chief of the armed forces, and Congress should demand that he do so.
But members of Congress swear an oath to the same Constitution, and they have responsibilities as well. Many failed to ask hard questions in 2003 and 2004. They owe it to the men and women in the service and to the country to do so now.