A High Price for a Hollow Victory

The Iraq supplemental conference report before the Senate today has been widely described as a victory for President Bush. If hardball politics and lock-step partisanship are the stuff of which victory is made, then I suppose the assessments are accurate. But if reasoned discourse, integrity, and accountability are the measures of true victory, then this package falls far short of the mark.

In the end, the President wrung virtually every important concession he sought from the House-Senate conference committee. Key provisions that the Senate had debated extensively, voted on, and included in its version of the bill – such as providing half of the Iraq reconstruction funding in the form of loans instead of grants – were thrown overboard in the conference agreement. Senators who had made compelling arguments on the Senate floor only days earlier to limit American taxpayers’ liability by providing some of the Iraq reconstruction aid in the form of loans suddenly reversed their position in conference and bowed to the power of the presidency.

Before us today is a massive $87 billion supplemental appropriations package that commits this nation to a long and costly occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and yet the collective wisdom of the House and Senate appropriations conference that produced it was little more than a shadow play, choreographed to stifle dissent and rubber stamp the President’s request.

Perhaps this take-no-prisoners approach is how the President and his advisers define victory, but I fear they are fixated on the muscle of the politics instead of the wisdom of the policy. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to policy, the Iraq supplemental is a monument to failure.

Consider, for example, that before the war, the President’s policy advisers assured the American people that Iraq would largely be able to finance its own reconstruction through oil revenues, seized assets, and increased economic productivity.

The $18 billion in this supplemental earmarked for the reconstruction of Iraq is testament to the fallacy of that prediction. It is the American taxpayer, not the Iraqi oil industry, that is being called upon to shoulder the financial burden of rebuilding Iraq.

The international community, on which the Administration pinned such hope for helping in the reconstruction of Iraq, has collectively ponied up only $13 billion, and the bulk of those pledges, $9 billion, is in the form of loans or credits, not grants. But still, the President claims victory for arm-twisting Congress into reversing itself on the question of loans and providing the entire $18 billion in U.S. tax dollars in the form of outright grants to Iraq. I readily admit that how this convoluted logic can be construed as a victory for the President is beyond me.

But reconstruction is only part of the story. On May 1, the President stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln – – strategically postured beneath a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished" – – and pronounced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Since that day, however, more American military personnel have been killed in Iraq than were killed during the major combat phase of the war. According to the Defense Department, 376 American troops have been killed to date in Iraq, and nearly two-thirds of those deaths – 238 – have occurred since May 1. When President Bush uttered the unwise challenge, "Bring ’em on" on July 2, the enemy did indeed "bring them on", and with a vengeance! Since the President made that comment, more than 165 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq. And as the death toll mounts, it has become clear that the enemy intends to keep on "bringing ’em on."

The $66 billion in this supplemental, required to continue the U.S. military occupation of Iraq over the next year, and the steadily rising death toll, are testament to the utter hollowness of the President’s declaration aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the careless bravado of his challenge to "bring ’em on".

It has been said many times on the floor of this Senate that a vote for this supplemental is a vote for our troops in Iraq. The implication is that a vote against the supplemental is a vote against our troops. I find that twisted logic to be both irrational and offensive. To my mind, backing a flawed policy with a flawed appropriations bill hurts our troops in Iraq more than it helps them. Endorsing and funding a policy that does nothing to relieve American troops in Iraq is not, in my opinion, a "support the troops" measure. Our troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the world have no stronger advocate than Robert C. Byrd. I support our troops, I pray for their safety, and I will continue to fight for a coherent policy that brings real help – not just longer deployments and empty sloganeering – to American forces in Iraq.

The supplemental package before us does nothing to internationalize the occupation of Iraq and, therefore, it is not — I say NOT — a vote "for our troops" in Iraq. We had a chance, in the beginning, to win international consensus on dealing with Iraq, but the Administration squandered that opportunity when the President gave the back of his hand to the United Nations and preemptively invaded Iraq. Under this Administration’s Iraq policy – endorsed in the President’s so-called victory on this supplemental – it is American troops who are walking the mean streets of Baghdad and American troops who are succumbing in growing numbers to a common and all too deadly cocktail of anti-American bombs and bullets in Iraq.

The terrible violence in Iraq on Sunday – the deaths of 16 soldiers in the downing of an American helicopter, the killing of another soldier in a bomb attack, and the deaths of two American civilian contractors in a mine explosion – is only the latest evidence that the Administration’s lack of post-war planning for Iraq is producing an erratic, chaotic situation on the ground with little hope for a quick turnaround. We appear to be lurching from one assault on our troops to the next while making little if any headway in stabilizing or improving security in the country.

The failure to secure the vast stockpiles of deadly conventional weapons in Iraq – including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles such as the one that may have brought down the U.S. helicopter on Sunday – is one of many mistakes that the Administration made that is coming back to haunt us today. But perhaps the biggest mistake, the costliest mistake – following the colossal mistake of launching a preemptive attack on Iraq – – is the Administration’s failure to have a clearly defined mission and exit strategy for Iraq.

The President continues to insist that the United States will persevere in its mission in Iraq, that our resolve is unshakable. But it is time – past time – for the President to tell the American people exactly what that mission is, how he intends to accomplish it, and what his exit strategy is for American troops in Iraq. It is the American people who will ultimately decide how long we will stay in Iraq.

It is not enough for the President to maintain that the United States will not be driven out of Iraq by the increasing violence against American soldiers. He must also demonstrate leadership by presenting the American people with a plan to stem the freewheeling violence in Iraq, return the government of that country to the Iraqi people, and pave the way for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. We do not now have such a plan, and the supplemental conference report before us does not provide such a plan. The $87 billion in this appropriations bill provides the wherewithal for the United States to stay the course in Iraq when what we badly need is a course correction. The President owes the American people an exit strategy for Iraq, and it is time for him to deliver.

I have great respect and affection for my fellow Senators and my colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee. But I have even greater respect and affection for the institution of the Senate and the Constitution by which it was established.

Every Senator, upon taking office, swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. It is the Constitution – not the President, not a political party, but the Constitution – to which Senators swear an oath of loyalty. And I am here to tell you that neither the Constitution nor the American people are well served by a process and a product that are based on blind adherence to the will of the President at the expense of congressional checks and balances. It is as if, in a rush to support the President’s policy, this White House is prepared to put blinders on the Congress.

This supplemental spending bill is a case in point. One of the earliest amendments that was defeated on the Senate floor was one that I offered to hold back a portion of the reconstruction money and give the Senate a second vote on whether to release it. Apparently, the President and his supporters did not want to give the Senate an opportunity to review the progress – or lack of progress – in Iraq and have a second chance to debate the wisdom of spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars on the reconstruction effort.

Time after time, the conference committee was given opportunities to restore or impose accountability on the administration for the money being appropriated in the Iraq supplemental. And time after time, the conference majority beat back those measures. The conferees, for example, defeated, on a party line vote, an amendment I offered which would have required that the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq be confirmed by the Senate. Senate confirmation would have ensured that the person who is managing tens of billions of dollars in Iraq for the American taxpayers would be accountable to the public. The current appointee, L. Paul Bremer III, is not. He answers to the Secretary of Defense and the President, not to Congress or the American people.

The conferees approved a provision creating an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority, but I am dismayed that this individual is not subject to Senate confirmation. I am dismayed that the conferees defeated my amendment that would have required the inspector general to testify before Congress when invited. And I am dismayed that the President can refuse to send Congress the results of the inspector general’s work. Could it be that the President’s supporters in Congress are afraid to hear what the inspector general might tell them? Could it be that the President’s supporters in Congress would rather blindly follow the President instead of risking reality by opening their eyes to what could be uncomfortable facts?

The conference also stripped out my amendment to the Senate bill that would have required the General Accounting Office to conduct ongoing audits of the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the reconstruction of Iraq. On the Senate floor, my amendment requiring such audits was adopted 97 to 0. In the House-Senate conference, it was defeated by the Senate conferees on a 15 to 14 straight-line party vote.

Sprinkled throughout the Iraq supplemental conference report, provisions euphemistically described as "flexibilities" give the President broad authority to take the money appropriated by Congress in this bill and spend it however he wishes. I tried to eliminate or limit these flexibilities – and in a few cases succeeded – but there remain billions of dollars in this measure that can be spent at the discretion of the President or the Secretary of Defense. Although the money is appropriated by Congress, these so-called "flexibilities" effectively transfer the power of the purse from the Legislative Branch to the Executive Branch.

The dictionary definition of victory is simple and straightforward: success, conquest, triumph. Within the constraints of that simplistic definition, I suppose one could construe this package to be a victory for the President.

But I believe there is a moral undercurrent to the notion of victory that is not reflected in the dictionary definition. I believe that most Americans equate victory more closely with what is right than with simply winning. It is one thing to win, and the tactics be damned; it is quite another to be victorious. Victory implies doing what is right; doing what is right implies morality; morality implies standards of conduct. I do not include arm-twisting and intimidation in my definition of exemplary standards of conduct.

Moreover, we should not forget that not all victories are created equal. In 280 BC, Pyrrhus, the ruler of Epirus in Northern Greece, took his formidable armies to Italy and defeated the Romans at Heraclea, and again at Asculum in 279 BC, but suffered unbearably heavy losses. "One more such victory and I am lost," he said.

It is to Pyrrhus that we owe the term "pyrrhic victory," to describe a victory so costly as to be ruinous. This supplemental, and the policy which it supports, unfortunately, may prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the Bush Administration.

The conference report before the Senate today is a flawed agreement that was produced by political imperative, not by reasoned policy considerations. This is not a good bill for our troops in Iraq. This is not a good bill for American taxpayers. This is not good policy for the United States.

Victory is not always about winning. Sometimes, victory is simply about being right. This conference report does not reflect the right policy for Iraq or the right policy for America. I oppose it and I will vote No on final passage.