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Hot Potato for Congress

Bush refuses to face reality on Iraq funding, so it's up to legislators to lead.

September 24, 2003

Congress and the American people are suffering from sticker shock regarding the rising costs for occupying Iraq. Before lawmakers sign on to more debt, they need to get the Bush administration back to practicing diplomacy and dealing in fiscal reality.

President Bush's address to the United Nations on Tuesday offered no new openings or conciliatory gestures. Instead, Bush scolded the allies about their duty to send money and troops for a campaign they oppose. For someone who has prided himself on pursuing hard-nosed U.S. interests, Bush demands remarkable altruism from the Europeans. He gave neither France nor Germany reason to reverse their peoples' opposition and pitch in -- beyond declaring that Iraq "needs and deserves our aid" and that nations of "goodwill should step forward." Those declarations persuaded no one.

Instead, the mess in Iraq is boomeranging even more on the administration. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who had been reaching out to the United States, is joining with France to insist on something Bush officials oppose -- a timetable for a quick transfer of power to Iraqi authorities.

With no sign of major allies' help on the horizon and with the certainty that there would be baleful consequences to a U.S. failure in postwar Iraq, Congress must make the hard, strategic choices that Bush officials spurn or ignore. The most glaring of these is to be candid in calculating the occupation's cost and what it means to the United States.

Though the administration says it has already spent $80 billion and needs at least $87 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee, figures the campaigns may cost as much as $418 billion in the next decade. His early estimate, part of a more extensive analysis, presumes the presence of multinational forces in Iraq and that part of the reconstruction costs will be covered by other nations and international agencies, not to mention Iraq oil revenue.

Camouflaging some of the U.S. spending as loans, as Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and other lawmakers propose, won't help. Iraq already owes at least $100 billion to countries such as France, Germany, Russia and Japan. If Bush tried even a little diplomacy with industrialized countries, might he persuade them to forgive some of that debt?

With the administration not budging, it's up to Congress, with the country facing a $500-billion deficit in 2004, to get Bush officials to justify their request for $87 billion. That's more than twice the cost of all federal education programs, veterans programs or transportation funding.

What, too, about the once-heralded reforms to make U.S. national elections easy, swift and fair, at a relatively puny $3.9 billion? Americans will need these soon when they get to vote on the politicians who put them in Iraq and in a sea of red ink.

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