- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

With the return of Congress, passing the $120 billion defense emergency supplemental bill will be high on the agenda. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it sets deadlines for troop withdrawals and includes some $20 billion for non-defense domestic programs commonly called pork. Because Democrats have promised not to withhold funding from the troops, a compromise will be reached. But beware: This bill is only the tip of the defense-spending iceberg. That iceberg is the surrogate for a more bitter and destructive debate over what to do next in Iraq.

For fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1, the administration has requested approximately $650 billion for the Defense Department — $450 billion in the regular budget and nearly $200 billion for emergency supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means Congress will appropriate nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars this year alone for defense.

If debate over the current $120 billion bill has been tough, what happens when Congress and the president tackle the remaining $650 billion later this year? The single largest metric in that battle royale will be the surge and its progress or failure in bringing security to Baghdad. Understandably, where one sits politically will dictate, unfortunately, where most stand on the surge irrespective of fact.

Republican supporters of the president cite cautious optimism and insist that the surge be given sufficient time to take hold. Democrats argue the surge merely thrusts Americans between insurgents, killing more U.S. soldiers while failing to produce political reconciliation among Iraqis or apportioning petroleum resources fairly among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Experts know that evaluating the effects of the surge will take considerable time, time that neither the government in Washington or Baghdad has.

There is other bad news. Last week, four retired four-star generals reportedly declined an administration offer to take on the role of czar for Afghanistan and Iraq with obvious political implications. More stunning was the Pentagon’s announcement that tours of duty for Army units in Iraq were being extended from 12 to 15 months. That extension is the clearest expression of how overstretched the Army is and a precursor of what could become the unraveling of the all-volunteer force, beginning with a precipitous decline in morale and support for the war by soldiers in the field because of that tour increase.

In the type of insurgent operations being conducted in Iraq, based on psychological considerations, the Marine Corps concluded that six or seven months is about the maximum length an individual can reasonably take. It planned accordingly. How 15-month tours will affect soldiers is yet to be determined. However, based on Vietnam experiences, an involuntary three-month extension of the one-year tour would have proven disastrous with most of the troops, admittedly a non-volunteer force. A sad prediction is that by next Christmas, the extension could produce a marked decline in Army morale and spirit.

As the fight over defense spending and Iraq continues and ultimately becomes entangled with the huge $650 billion pending defense package, the partisan divide over Iraq will have widened, while public support for the war most likely will continue downward. What this means is that the nation could be facing political gridlock over the defense budget with no sound way of producing an acceptable Iraqi strategy.

Here is one solution with little chance of working but is instructive nonetheless. Last week, Sen. John Kerry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced off over global climate change in the Russell Senate Office Building. Instead of descending into the usual partisan name-calling and attack politics, the debate became a conversation between two very intelligent, highly experienced politicians in the best sense of the word, conducted with great civility, dignity and mutual respect — qualities absolutely missing in Washington politics today. Perhaps strikingly, Messrs. Kerry and Gingrich had far more points of agreement than not.

Both saw climate change as a crucial issue requiring immediate action. The major difference was on solutions. Mr. Kerry argued for government-imposed caps and regulations to force change. Mr. Gingrich argued that tax and other private-sector incentives were best to alter market behavior. Mr. Kerry concluded by predicting that if he and Newt had a week, he was certain they could agree on policies to address the challenge of global climate change.

So why not task Messrs. Kerry and Gingrich to take the lead on these most critical issues including Iraq, free of partisan vindictiveness, in which ideology, not ideas, and sound bites, not facts, drive what passes for debate? Clearly, this will not work. But understanding why a civil and informed debate could lead to solutions might be a first step in trying to make a broken government whole again.

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