As expected based on precedent, the Senate passed a bill Thursday morning to pump $165.4 billion into the pipeline for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As expected, the Senate rejected a provision that would have established a June 2009 goal for the partial redeployment of troops from Iraq. This move has pushed the withdrawal debate off the table until after Bush leaves office, according to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at the government watchdog group OMB Watch.
"This supplemental bill would fully fund the Iraq war through end of Bush's presidency," Jennings told Truthout. "Chances to substantively affect war policy will drop to infinitesimally small levels once Congress writes this check."
The writing of that check brings the total war funds approved for the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) to $860 billion. The US has now appropriated far more for the GWOT than for any other war in our history, barring World War II.
But, momentous as they are, those occupation-affirming votes were predicted by most in Congress. Perhaps more telling was the way this bill was framed: despite two days of impassioned debate, with Democrats arguing for the quick reversal of a flawed war policy, nothing in the supplemental legislation would have accomplished that goal.
Last week, the House passed an Iraq policy amendment that established a timetable to withdraw most troops from Iraq. The Senate's revisions morphed that provision into a nonbinding "sense of the Senate" resolution recommending that troops be "transitioned" to "counterterrorism operations," training and equipping the Iraqi army, and "force protection" by June 2009. Since the bill provides no definitions of "counterterrorism" and "force protection," it could theoretically maintain status quo operations in Iraq even if it had been approved.
Like most of Congress's Iraq-related legislation this year, the Senate's "sense" of a withdrawal goal was symbolic, according to Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981-1985.
"The Democrats were given control of the Congress because people wanted to end the war," Korb told Truthout. "They want to say, 'We've done what we could.'"
Yet, regardless of the president's rigidity and the impending might of his veto pen, Congress would do well to at least keep the Iraq debate on the table, according to Senator Russ Feingold, who planned to introduce a binding withdrawal amendment that would use the supplemental funding to pull troops out of Iraq, after which war spending would end.
"We owe it to the American people to at least vote on ending this war," Feingold said in a statement released before the vote. "Everything about this supplemental - from the way it was crafted behind closed doors to the weak language it contains - fails to meet the standards of what Americans expect from their leaders."
The amendment was not brought to the floor.
Thursday's votes - the ready granting of war funds and the failure of even the weakest war policy provisions - mark, in some ways, an end to the dream of a Congressional revolution planted by the overwhelming wave of Democratic victories in 2006.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd acknowledged this reality in his opening statements to the supplemental debate.
"One thing is clear in this request," Byrd said. "American fighting men and women will continue to be in Iraq when the presidency of George W. Bush ends on January 20, 2009."
When it comes to the war, according to Korb, the deciding factor will be the November election. With Thursday's vote, the 110th Congress's chances for any significant involvement in Iraq policy have ceased.
Holding Iraqis "Accountable"
Thursday's failed Iraq policy legislation also showcased Congress's increasingly popular rallying cry - especially among antiwar Democrats - to "hold Iraqis responsible" for postwar reconstruction.
A House amendment, passed last week, would require the Iraqi government to match US-provided reconstruction funds, dollar for dollar. The corresponding Senate proposal, part of the policy amendment that was knocked down on Thursday, would take the mandate a step further, compelling Iraqis to pay for any project over $2 million. It remains to be seen whether the measure will be revived during the joint committee deliberations that decide the final legislation, but support for demanding "Iraqi responsibility" is strong.
Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colorado), who pushed for the provision on the floor, urged tough talk and admonished Iraqis for not yet meeting some of the US's "benchmarks" for progress.
"[The provision] would require the Iraqi government to stand up to its responsibilities in important ways," Salazar said. "We are spending $12 billion from American taxpayers each month in Iraq. In my view, it is time for the Iraqi government to share this financial burden."
Yet over the last five years, the US has spent less than $30 billion on reconstruction - about the cost of waging two and a half months of war - and Iraq, with its comparatively tiny budget, has spent much more than the United States on this front, according to Erik Leaver, Foreign Policy in Focus's policy outreach director, who cited a recent audit by Iraq's inspector general.
Moreover, according to the CIA "World Factbook," Iraq's GDP was $55 billion in 2007. "$2.25 billion turns out to be a nontrivial amount of money for Iraq, the absence of which would definitely be felt by Iraqis," Jennings said, pointing to the amount of money that might be spent in a year for reconstruction.
Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi correspondent based in Diyala, sees the mounting movement to "hold Iraqis responsible" as infantilizing - and irresponsible, considering the occupation's interference with basic necessities like water access, health care and electricity.
"The U.S Army was the reason behind the destruction of infrastructure of Iraq, and the people and the government of Iraq have necessary liabilities and debts," Ali told Truthout. "Iraq and the people of Iraq need all possible money to rebuild their destroyed country."
Ali also noted that Iraqis have little influence on how reconstruction money is spent or what projects should be prioritized.
In addition to the reconstruction payment mandate, both the House and Senate amendments would require Iraq to subsidize the US military's gasoline purchases, linking the Iraq war with the ability to control oil prices. Since oil is practically Iraq's only export, and it is currently seeing substantial revenues, politicians are vying for a US cut, according to Jennings.
"For the congresspersons that back this measure, they are clearly tapping into pain-at-the-pump politics," he said.
The Senate bill attempted to go a step further than the House: It would have withheld the operating money for the Office of the Secretary of Defense unless the US compelled the Iraqi government to subsidize fuel.
Many Iraqis view the push to reduce the Army's gas fees as a predictable - yet nonsensical - oil grab by the US, according to Maki al-Nazzal, an Iraqi political analyst from Fallujah, who now resides in Damascus.
"It is like making families of executed persons pay for the bullets they are executed with," al-Nazzal said.
The supplemental now goes to back to the House for a new vote.