- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

For many thousands of dead or maimed Americans, an unknowable number of Iraqis and families on all sides, the Iraq war is a personal tragedy. However, in a broader sense, tragedy is fast becoming a metaphor for American actions in which good intent leads to disastrous outcomes. Consider Congress, the fate of too many badly wounded service personnel and an implosion awaiting the Pentagon.

Congress, viewed by most of the public with disdain, is understandably torn over Iraq. All members want us to succeed. Many see us at or on the point of failure. But what can Congress do? Despite its constitutional and moral responsibilities, choices range from bad to worse. Cutting off funding, convincing the Iraqi government to do more or revoking the October 2002 authorization to use force are neither a strategy nor a sensible way of exiting Iraq without risking a massive escalation in instability. And capping forces will hamper military operations.

On the other hand, blindly supporting the president in the latest gambit to surge more forces is equally flawed, as continued failure to pacify Iraq tragically underscores. However, neither unyielding support nor the harshest criticism has produced a sounder alternative or convinced President Bush to undertake a full diplomatic surge in the region beyond the forthcoming international conferences scheduled for Baghdad. Could Shakespeare have found a better theater for tragedy than Congress’ torment over Iraq?

The disgraceful rehabilitation and long-term care of recovering wounded servicemen and women repeat this tragic element of American policy. Americans harbor idealistic and magnificent sets of expectations, such as ensuring only the best for our wounded, or for that matter liberating repressed peoples and infusing them with the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness fully paid for with our blood and national treasure.

Yet, until The Washington Post broke the story, no general or senior officer bothered to venture into Walter Reed’s dilapidated Building 18 or seemed interested in investigating the monstrous bureaucratic processes confronting our seriously wounded troops long after battlefield medicine preformed miracles. Worse, the same absence of oversight, urgency and concern applies to what has happened in Iraq after the president declared “mission accomplished.” Why has become the tragic and unanswered question.

Trouble also confronts the Pentagon and our military once Iraq is over or winds down. This year, Congress will be asked to appropriate $714 billion for the Department of Defense and the global war on terror, some of it in a supplemental request for last year. The decision to add 92,000 more ground forces over the next five years will inadvertently contribute to this coming debacle.

The Army and Marines are indeed thinly stretched over deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guard and Reserves are stressed even more. However, especially for the Army, by 2012 when these additional forces are fully recruited and trained, the demands of Iraq are likely to be over. What purpose this increase in people will then serve has not been fully considered. Furthermore, the price tag will run into many tens of billions of dollars a year, dollars that Congress will be reluctant or unable to provide given the disproportionately large size of defense spending vs. all other discretionary nondefense programs. And naturally the Navy and Air Force will oppose huge cuts in order to beef up ground forces, even if that were physically possible and had real strategic value.

What this means is that the Pentagon is headed for an unintended and calamitous implosion driven not just by fiscal reality but other strategic, political, operational and bureaucratic factors. Already, stretching out current procurement programs to buy the same numbers but over a longer period can increase costs between 50 percent and 100 percent without purchasing even one more aircraft or ship. A fierce and unanswerable debate over the need to prepare for “small” wars in the fight against terror or for “big” wars against a Chinese, Russian or other imagined “peer competitor” will further exacerbate the clash over future military roles and force structure.

Defense contractors, supported by Congress, will weigh in to demand multibillion-dollar programs that can only come from building the most advanced ships, aircraft and fighting vehicles in the world further straining a shrinking budget. The result, if we do not take very tough, highly disciplined action now, will lead to a real tragedy at the Pentagon and an implosion of our military power.

Other pressing issues such as Russia, climate change and energy security have tragic elements in place if we are not careful or are unlucky. Government is badly broken and currently unable to produce satisfactory and even acceptable policy outcomes. Tragedy is not inevitable. But, unless Americans sit up, take note and demand effective, corrective action, despite the best intent, happy endings will exist only in movies and on television.

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