The Senate picks a bad time to slash funds for Iraq
IRAQ IS at a tipping point. The parliament elected in March's elections was finally seated this week, but the formation of a new government is still weeks or months away. Meanwhile, a big withdrawal of U.S. forces is going forward -- the number of troops will be halved, to 50,000, by the end of the summer. If a stable government forms by then and Iraqi security forces are able to fill the gap left by American units, the U.S. mission in Iraq will be on the homestretch to a successful conclusion.
But a lot could still go wrong -- especially if Iraqis begin to perceive that what is supposed to be a transition from occupation to strategic partnership with the United States is becoming an American rush for the exits, complete with the disavowal of past commitments. That's why it's particularly concerning that the Senate has chosen this sensitive moment to slash more than $1 billion from the aid programmed for the Iraqi transition -- including critical funding for security forces.
The most dangerous cut was initiated in the Senate Armed Services Committee last month by Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). Mr. Levin persuaded his committee to cut by half the $2 billion requested by the Obama administration for the funding of Iraqi forces in the 2011 defense authorization bill.
The administration's request was the product of a careful Pentagon study of what is needed to complete the transition to full control by Iraqi security forces at the end of 2011, when the last U.S. troops are due to depart. The total sum is $8 billion, of which $4 billion is coming from the Iraqi government. The Levin amendment could make it impossible for the United States to provide Iraq with equipment its forces will need -- and the trouble will only be exacerbated if a separate, $300 million Senate reduction in funds for Iraq in the 2010 supplemental appropriations bill holds up.
Mr. Levin's cut has little to do with fiscal probity. After all, he allowed some $2.8 billion in earmarks to be added to the $700 billion bill, including hundreds of millions for construction that the Pentagon neither requested nor wanted. Instead the senator was piqued by the Iraqi parliament's decision to reduce the government-requested defense budget from $7.4 billion to $4.9 billion. He argues that Iraqis, not Americans, should make up the $1 billion he took out.
This position ignores a few facts: that Iraq is already covering half the cost of the military transition; that its defense spending is far higher than that of the United States as a percentage of gross national product; that it already needed bailouts from both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to fund its budget and even so "will have to issue new debt to cover its budget deficit in 2010," according to a letter signed by U.S. ambassador Christopher R. Hill and U.S. forces commander Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.
But the biggest problem with the Senate cuts is the message they send: that the long-term strategic partnership that the United States has promised Iraq is likely to be barren. As Iraqis deliberate over the nature and course of their next government, there could hardly be a worse time for Congress to give that impression.