State of the Union

Congress Can Stop Obama’s Ramp Up to War

Barack Obama has asked Congress for $500 million to train and arm rebels of the Free Syrian Army who seek to overthrow the government. Before Congress takes up his proposal, both houses should demand that Obama explain exactly where he gets the constitutional authority to plunge us into what the president himself calls “somebody else’s civil war.”

Syria has not attacked us. Syria does not threaten us. Why are we joining a jihad to overthrow the Syrian government?

President Bashar Assad is fighting against the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the even more extreme and vicious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In training and arming the FSA, we are enlisting in a cause where our foremost fighting allies are Islamists, like those who brought down the twin towers, and a Sunni terrorist army that seeks to bring down the government we left behind in Baghdad.

What are we doing?

Assad is no angel. But before this uprising, which has taken 150,000 lives and created millions of refugees, Congressmen and secretaries of state regularly visited him in Damascus. ”There’s a different leader in Syria now,” cooed Hillary in 2011, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

If we bring down Assad, what assurance to do have that the Free Syrian Army will prevail against the Islamists who have proved far more effective in the field? Will we not be compelled to plunge into the subsequent civil war to keep ISIS and al-Qaeda from taking power?

If Assad falls there is also a high probability Syria’s Christians will face beheadings and butchery at the hands of the fanatics. And should martyrdoms and massacres begin with the fall of Assad because of our intervention, the blood of Christians will be on the hands of Barack Hussein Obama and the Congress of the United States.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin says he wants no part of Obama’s new wars. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine rightly asserts that President Obama has no authority to take us into war in Syria or Iraq. But where are the Republicans?

Absent an attack on U.S. citizens or vital interests, or an imminent threat of attack, Obama has no authority to initiate war. The Constitution places the power to authorize wars of choice exclusively with Congress. James Madison and his colleagues were seeking to ensure against a rogue presidency of the kind that Obama has lately begun to conduct.

It is astonishing that Republicans who threaten to impeach Obama for usurping authority at home remain silent as he prepares to usurp their war powers—to march us into Syria and back into Iraq. Last August, Americans rose as one to tell Congress to deny Obama any authority to attack Syria. Are Republicans now prepared to sit mute as Obama takes us into two new Middle East wars, on his own authority?

A Congressional debate on war is essential not only from a legal and constitutional standpoint but also a strategic one. For there is a question as to whether we are even on the right side in Syria. Assad, no matter his sins, is the defender of the Christian and Shia minorities in Syria. He has been the most successful Arab ruler in waging war against the terrorist brigades of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Why, then, are we training Syrians to attack his army and arming people to topple his government? Have we not before us, in Libya, an example of what happens when we bring down an autocrat like Gadhafi, and even worse devils are unleashed? Read More…

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Make Obama Go to Congress for More War in Iraq

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

With the Islamic warriors of ISIS having captured all the border posts between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, we may be witnessing the end of Sykes-Picot. That was the secret 1916 treaty by which the British and French carved up the Ottoman Empire, with the Brits taking Transjordan and Iraq, and the French Syria and Lebanon. Sykes-Picot stuck in the craw of Osama bin Laden. Now his most fanatical followers have given him a posthumous triumph.

President Obama said over the weekend that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which seeks to create a caliphate out of the Sunni lands of Syria and Iraq it occupies, poses a threat to the United States. Obama has thus committed 300 special forces to assist Iraq’s defeated and demoralized army, and there is talk of U.S. air and missile strikes and drone attacks on ISIS, in Syria as well as in Iraq.

That would constitute a new war. Yet the president, who taught constitutional law, says he does not need Congressional authorization. He is dead wrong. Not only has he no authority to take America into civil wars in Iraq and Syria, he would be insane to do so without the support of his countrymen, as expressed in a vote by Congress.

Obama is about to make a decision fateful for himself and for his country. Does he not realize that he is on the edge of an abyss, about to stumble into a tribal and religious war across the Middle East? The Iraq we left behind three years ago no longer exists. It has been divided up into a Kurdistan, the Sunni region of the north and west, and a Shia-dominated Baghdad and south.

To put the Iraq of Sykes-Picot back together would require thousands of troops to recapture and hold Iraq’s border towns and to reimpose Baghdad’s rule over Anbar and the Sunni Triangle. As the Iraqi army has been routed from this region, recapturing these Sunni lands could require U.S. troops in numbers to rival the surge that enabled Gen. David Petraeus to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yet the situation in the Sunni region is more hostile today.

The Sunni do not want U.S. troops fighting to force them back under Baghdad’s rule. Some have welcomed ISIS as allies in the fight to be free of a hated Shia-dominated army and regime. Some Sunni Arab states are expressing bewilderment that the United States seems about to start a war on the Sunni regions. Are we really going to send planes to bomb and kill our former allies, with their wives and children as collateral damage?

Among the Shia volunteers on whose side we would be fighting are the Mahdi Army we fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many have blood debts to collect from U.S. soldiers. Ayatollah Khamenei says that while he might welcome the use of U.S. air power against ISIS, he does not want U.S. troops to return to Baghdad or the Shia south. Is the U.S. Air Force going to become the Condor Legion of the Ayatollah Khamenei?

Assume that we intervened massively, led the Iraq army back into the Sunni north and west, and helped it to recapture Mosul and the border posts. How many U.S. troops would we have to leave behind in Iraq to prevent a future Shia regime from losing its Sunni provinces a third time? The Iraqi army that we trained at a cost of $25 billion and left behind in 2011 folded like a house of cards. How many times must we do this? And if we defeat ISIS, would not these jihadists simply retreat into the Syrian territories they now occupy, as their privileged sanctuary, to come back and fight another day? Read More…

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Bombs Can’t Save Iraq

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller

The panic that engulfed this capital after the fall of Mosul, when it appeared that the Islamist fanatics of ISIS would overrun Baghdad, has passed. And the second thoughts have begun. “U.S. Sees Risk in Iraqi Airstrikes,” ran the June 19 headline in the Washington Post, “Military Warns of Dangerous Complications.” This is welcome news. For if it is an unwritten rule of republics not to commit to war unless the nation is united, America has never been less prepared for a Mideast war.

Our commander in chief is a reluctant warrior who wants his legacy to be ending our two longest wars. And just as Obama does not want to go back into Iraq, neither does the U.S. military. The American people want no new war, and Congress does not want to be forced to vote on such a war. Our foreign policy elites are split half a dozen ways—on whether to bomb or not to bomb, on who our real enemies are in Syria and Iraq, on whose support we should and should not accept, on what our strategic goals are, and what are the prospects for success.

Consider the bombing option.

Undoubtedly, U.S. air power could blunt an attack on Baghdad. But air power cannot retake Mosul or the Sunni Triangle that Baghdad has lost, or Kirkuk or Kurdistan. That will take boots on the ground and casualties. And nobody thinks these should be American boots or American casualties. And why should we fight to hold Iraq together? Is that a vital interest to which we should commit American lives in perpetuity? When did it become so?

No. Bombing cannot put Iraq together again, but it may tear Iraq further apart. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has succeeded in northern Iraq because it has allied with the same militias, Baathists, and tribal leaders who worked with Gen. David Petraeus in the Anbar Awakening. And if we use air power in Sunni provinces that have seceded from Baghdad, we will be killing people who were our partners and are not our enemies. Photos of dead Sunnis, from U.S. air, drone, and missile strikes, could inflame the Sunni world.

Upon one thing Americans do agree: ISIS and al-Qaeda are our enemies. But is bombing ISIS and killing Sunnis the way to destroy ISIS? Or does bombing martyrize and heroize ISIS for the Sunni young? And if destroying ISIS is a strategic imperative, why have we not demanded that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia cease funneling arms and aid to ISIS in Syria? Why have we not told the Turks to stop permitting jihadists to cross their border into Syria? Why are we aiding and arming the Free Syrian Army to bring down Bashar Assad, when Assad’s army is the only fighting force standing between ISIS and the conquest of Syria? Read More…

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ISIS May Expel Iraq’s Christians for Good

Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc
Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, has recently overtaken the major Iraqi city of Mosul, causing an exodus of more than 500,000 that took some of Iraq’s last remaining Christians with it. The city itself, mentioned in the Bible as Nineveh, has harbored Christianity since the very dawn of its tradition and was one of the last havens for Iraqi Christian communities.

Despite these deep roots, past U.S. policy has ignored the vulnerable position of Christians in the Middle East. Andrew Doran wrote a strikingly prescient piece for TAC almost exactly one year ago, saying:

[D]emocracy in the Middle East is proving less tolerant than the regimes it has succeeded. Unless swift action is taken, these democracies will evolve into bastions of intolerance and violence beyond our comprehension. These democracies will not march ineluctably toward liberty and pluralism, as some naïve optimists continue to forecast despite the evidence, but will end in the ordered barbarism of Saudi Arabia, where punishments include beheading and crucifixion[.]

As it so happens, ISIS is the jihadist organization renounced by al-Qaeda for its brutality. Maliki’s abusive government, propped up by $20 billion in American aid, allowed Mosul to be claimed with alarming ease. One CNN article reports that “[p]olice and soldiers ran form their posts rather than put up a fight, abandoning their weapons as they went. The militants took their place in the city’s boulevards and buildings.” Marc Lynch of the Washington Post argues that the Iraqi military isn’t resisting is because Maliki has lost its loyalty:

The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq.

If ISIS succeeds, the regnant regime will be the “ordered barbarism” Doran foretold. In the hierarchy of a new caliphate, there will be no room for diversity or religious tolerance; there will no longer be any room for Christianity. According to a World magazine report, most of the Christians, so long a presence in Mosul, have already been driven out:

“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi said today following the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city—and its ancient Christian homeland—by al-Qaeda-linked jihadist militants.

Catholic Archbishop Amil Shamaaoun Nona is reported to have said that the decline has been occurring since the U.S.-led campaign began. “In 2003 there were still 35,000 faithful living in Mosul,” Nona said. “Three thousand were still there in early 2014. Now probably not one is left here, and that is tragic[.]” According to Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute notes that, once the Christians are gone, they may not be coming back:

When the army does eventually succeed in reversing jihadi control in Mosul, it may be too late for the Christians. Once Middle Eastern Christians flee to the West, they don’t return.

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Somewhere, Bin Laden Is Smiling

Bowe Bergdahl was “an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield” who “served the United States with distinction and honor,” asserted Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser.

Rice was speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the morning after Barack Obama’s Rose Garden celebration of Bergdahl’s release. When she spoke last Sunday, could Rice have been ignorant of the widespread reports that Bergdahl had deserted?

Before last Sunday, her credibility was already in tatters.

Five days after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans were killed in Benghazi, Rice went on five Sunday shows to describe the terrorist attack as a spontaneous riot ignited by an anti-Muslim video.

Not only has her credibility now suffered a second near-lethal blow, her competence as a presidential adviser is open to question. How could she let the president strut into the Rose Garden to celebrate the release of a soldier whose reported desertion triggered a province-wide search that may have cost the lives of half a dozen American soldiers?

As The Hill reported, a Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded Bergdahl had walked out on his unit and left a note in his tent saying he was disillusioned with the Army and no longer supported the war. Was Rice ignorant of this? Did she think it not relevant, when she approved the president’s hosting of Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden? Is Rice not responsible for the humiliation President Obama has endured all week and the fiasco that diverted national and international attention from his trip to Warsaw, Brussels and Normandy?

Forty-eight hours after Obama celebrated Bergdahl’s release, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was promising an investigation of the soldier on the charge of desertion and related allegations he may have defected and collaborated. If Gen. Martin Dempsey was aware an investigation into charges so serious that they carry the death penalty was ahead for Bergdahl, did he not flag the White House before the president went before the nation to celebrate Bergdahl’s return? Read More…

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Chuck Hagel’s Thought Crime

Of all of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s “inquisitors” at yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearing, John B. Judis observes that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican, was “tough and fair” and well-mannered. I suppose this is superficially true. And yet I was utterly gobsmacked by the exchange.

Here’s a YouTube clip:

The infraction in question here is that Hagel, in a 2007 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “The core tenets of George Kennan’s ‘The Long Telegram’ and the strategy of containment remain relevant today. This is how we should have handled Saddam Hussein.” (I bolded the clause that Ayotte quoted, and presumably found damning.)

The speech in full (go ahead, read it!) should offend no one. It was a routine formulation of classical realist principles:

In the Middle East of the 21st Century, Iran will be a key center of gravity…and remain a significant regional power. The United States cannot change that reality. America’s strategic thinking and policies for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and well into the future.

To acknowledge that reality in no way confuses Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing and threatening behavior in the region. Our differences with Iran are real. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to provide material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The President of Iran publicly threatens Israel’s existence and is attempting to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Yet, America’s military might alone cannot successfully address these challenges or achieve any level of sustainable stability with Iran. The United States must employ a comprehensive strategy that uses all of its tools of influence within its foreign policy arsenal—political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military.

This is the way moderate Republicans and liberal internationalists talked about foreign policy challenges throughout the 1990s. It is the kind of rhetoric that President Clinton employed and, for the most part, the kind of rhetoric President Obama employs today. Now, it’s true, as was pointed out to Hagel ad infinitum yesterday, that the Obama administration does not profess a policy of containment toward Iran; it has vowed to prevent the regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But Obama was not president in 2007. And Hagel, then still a senator, was free to ruminate on the “inventory,” as he put it yesterday, of options available to American diplomats and national security strategists.

“Was it that containment was one of the options?” Ayotte probed.

Hagel: “Yes, of course.”

This is damning?


Yes: Of course a strategy of containment is an option. So is an air attack or a land invasion tomorrow. Yet Ayotte strongly implied that the mere entertaining of the idea of containment was disqualifying. Containment ipso facto means appeasement, and to have said it’s worthy of consideration is a kind of thought crime. Consider: a member of the U.S. Senate, “the world’s most deliberative body,” thinks that it’s impermissible to actually deliberate foreign policy.

Add Ayotte’s exchange to Sen. John McCain’s confrontation with Hagel, in which McCain treated the arguable success of the Iraq surge as a priest would the historicity of the virgin birth, and we have the unmistakable voice of a school of foreign policy that operates more like an office of doctrinal enforcement.

These are dangerous people.

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“Zoo Is Hell”

Just saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph’s new play, at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, MD. It’s not a perfect play–there’s some unnecessarily on-the-nose dialogue, and it’s content to keep its two American characters democracy-whiskey-sexy caricatures, which can get grating. But overall this is a terrific play.

The tiger is played by a man, Eric Hissom in this case, who has a keen appetite, a sort of drunken-uncle garrulousness, and an unexpected existentialist spirit. He’s shot early on in the play and wanders the streets of Baghdad encountering other ghosts, including a Mephistophelean Uday Hussein.

I complained that a lot of plays etc about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show basically no interest in imagining actual Iraqis and Afghans. This play, by contrast, is actually about Iraqis, believe it or not–Iraq, here, has a drama and inner life which didn’t start with the American invasion.

The play is funny–there’s a quick, grim little knock-knock joke at the beginning, and knock-knock jokes are a recurring theme–and startlingly violent, even for a war story. It ends up as a play about theodicy, basically. There are recurring images like hands and listening, unexpectedly-intertwining plotlines, and a few moments of haunting poetry, as when the tiger hears the muezzins calling people to prayer and their voices roll in to a ruined garden “like fog.”

The Iraqi characters, including the tiger, mirror the Americans in ways ranging from the tiger’s musing that he’s “10,000 miles from where I’m supposed to be” to an interpreter’s self-lacerating cry, “I am so tired of making the same mistake over and over again!” But the Iraqis don’t exist simply to provide commentary on the Americans. They have their own questions and histories.

There’s a shatteringly perfect ending line (“This is what he said”) which unfortunately is not quite the actual ending. There’s just a lot of intelligence, imagination, and gallows humor on display in this particular zoo.

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“Black Watch”: A Play Asks Why the Devil Has All the Good Tunes

Black Watch, a Scottish creation imported to DC’s Shakespeare Theatre (through October 7), tells the story of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as one recent sordid chapter in the story of the iconic Black Watch regiment. It starts out asking what it was like to fight in the military–but ends up asking what it was like to join the military.

It’s a kinetic, surreal, self-aware, and thoroughly researched show, which combines dance, song, and acting. An actual Iraqi is mentioned once, I think; mostly Iraqis are treated as projection screens. An embedded journalist speculates that porn on tanks might “play out” badly “in the Islamic world,” and a soldier’s reply suggests that it’s really more the bombing than the porn that bothers people, but both of them are speaking about imagined Iraqis rather than known ones.

All of these characteristics are by now fairly typical of Iraq/Afghanistan artwork. The guilty conscience of the civilian and the creepily reverent, grabby longing to hear war stories; the technique of using dance to interrupt “prose” staging, suggesting the absurdity of military life and the interruptions of violence; the ostentatious research; the lack of interest in the lives and stories of Iraqis–all of that comes with the war-theater territory. Time Stands Still and Home of the Soldier each had some of these elements, for example, although Black Watch is better than both of them.

It’s framed as the story of a researcher meeting and interviewing a bunch of crass and damaged ex-soldiers in a pub, so there’s a lot of self-consciousness about civilians as the audience of war. (There’s a really sharp little bit where the Scottish soldiers stand around and watch the Americans blowing a town to hell, spectating and Monday-morning quarterbacking somebody else’s war even while they’re in the middle of their own.) There are some fierce insights I haven’t seen elsewhere, like the way the standard-issue military cynicism can become a way of justifying war rather than challenging it: When the military thoroughly mistreats its soldiers one of them responds blackly, “If you canna take a joke don’t f—ing join.” The cynicism gets turned against the possibility of change, like building a gallows out of gallows humor.

Where Black Watch really surpasses other similar works, I think, is in the way it depicts the glamor of war. Other bitter artworks have noted the contrast between the glorious imagery and the gore. But Black Watch tries to make the audience feel the soul-stirring call of war-songs, while simultaneously indicting those forms of folk tradition and art as one of the engines of modern war. Toward the end a soldier asks why they all joined. “Maybe we’re just f—in’ stupid. Maybe we just liked f—-in’ fighting.” The play, though, suggests that they were called as much by tradition and glamor, the old proud songs, as by those baser motives. (Is it anti-American to suggest that the Marine Corps version of this show would replace traditional Scottish songs and dances with imagery from The Dark Knight Rises?)

There’s no attempt at an alternative, by the way, no attempt to make pacifism or any form of civilian life look beautiful. The only civilian we see is the theater researcher and I do not think anyone would be wooed by his dark glamor. This may be an unfair generalization, but my impression is that a lot of what we might think of as contemporary “anti-war” art or pop culture–movies, TV–is actually more like the soldier’s useful cynicism. It’s unhappy with the military and the wars, but it’s thoroughly uninterested in finding stories which suggest alternatives for anchorless young people seeking an identity.

In the final moments of Black Watch, the music gets so overwhelming that it’s physically painful. It’s just pounding and wailing, as the actors throw themselves around on the stage, and all you want is for the music to stop. When it finally does stop, there’s just a black silence, the end of the play.

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We Need Realists and Idealists, But for Now We Have the Pauls

Tonight the GOP convention will broadcast a video tribute to Ron Paul, which will then be followed with a speech by Rand, his son, the Senator from Kentucky.

It has been less than a decade since the Iraq War was launched, and already the Republican party is forced to acknowledge a wing that is non-interventionist. Think about how remarkable that is. Insiders know just how disorganized the 2008 Ron Paul campaign turned out to be. And how despised he was by so many in the party. Four years later he is a more important figure in the party that Rudy Giuliani. He is the leader of a major faction.

This doesn’t mean we’re going to get a reasonable foreign policy soon. But it is something to celebrate.

My own view has been that a sensible foreign policy will not be possible without a new kind of fusionism. On the one hand there must be the non-interventionists like Paul–I proudly call myself an isolationist. They provide the vision, even the romance of America standing independent from the corruption of European or Middle-Eastern intrigues.

On the other hand, we need the expertise and statesmanship that are prized by foreign policy realists. We need them to explain why this or that intervention is unwise. We need them to understand and pursue the diplomatic means to avoid war. After interviewing and observing him at length, I was drawn to the candidacy of Jon Huntsman precisely because I saw in him the possibility of a “real” realist. (Daniel Larison and I could fight about whether that was an illusion another time.) I also happen to believe that a coalition against stupid wars has to be transpartisan, just as the interventionist coalition has been able to capture the high places of both parties.

In other words, we need people who believe as a matter of principle that elective wars are destructive nonsense. And we need other people who know why some particular elective war is nonsense as a matter of analysis. Idealists and experts.

But there is a problem. Currently the realists aren’t holding their end of my proposed bargain, at least politically. They may not even be interested in it. Consider that during the Iraq War, a much balleyhooed “realist” like Chuck Hagel cast a vote for the war itself. His only “realist” contribution came once the war was politically toxic for Republicans. He creased his forehead with some gravitas and made frustrated noises and… well that was about it. The Iraq Study group, supposedly made up of tough realists, just rolled over dead after issuing its own chin-stroking report. That was the entirety of the “realist” response to the Iraq War.

So those of us who dream of saner days in policymaking should take a moment tonight to appreciate everything the Paul faction has done. Currently they are the only political force capable of electing House and Senate members who are reliable anti-war voters no matter which party holds the Executive office. They are the only political faction educating their constituents on these issues. They are the only one reaching out to other Republicans to build consensus on them. Yes they are a dreadfully small force. But try to name a single “realist” politician who can be trusted to vote and argue against intervention when the pressure is really applied to “do something” in Syria or Iran. I can’t think of one. Not yet.

And so I’ve come to the temporary conclusion that the only way we may ever see dependable realists is to keep growing the Paul coalition of peace-loving Republicans. We need more of Rand Paul and Justin Amash. We need more institutions dedicated to peace as a matter of principle. Perhaps once these radicals make the political process safe for peace, we’ll get the experts and wise men on board.

So yes, I’ll be cheering for Rand tonight.

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News Flash: Pentagon Spends Like Drunken Sailors

The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released its final major audit over the weekend, delivering quite a bottom line: it cannot say how much U.S taxpayers lost while trying to rebuild Iraq, but it was a lot.

The U.S. government Iraq relief and reconstruction program had serious internal control weaknesses that put billions of American taxpayer dollars at risk of fraud, waste, and abuse. The precise amount lost to fraud and waste may never be known, but SIGIR’s audits and investigations have demonstrated that the amount could be substantial. The end result of the dollars lost to fraud and waste is that those funds were not available to assist the Iraqi people and help rebuild their country.

True, and one can look at it another, albeit more selfish, way: that those funds were never available to rebuild the sorry state of infrastructure in this country, which according to one 2011 study, now ranks behind Barbados. But as the old rejoinder says, we broke Iraq so we had to buy it. We bought it alright–$51 billion worth, according to the report–but it seems someone else was taking the bags out of the store.

“Here’s where I can help,” charged Peter Van Buren, who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) on behalf of the State Department and wrote a whole book about the lost billions called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He now publishes a blog of the same name.

“I do know the precise amount lost to fraud and waste: all of it. Every freaking penny. Every dollar spent on Iraq that was not spent on Scranton, Detroit, Cleveland or New Orleans.”

The Final Forensic Audit Report of Iraq Reconstruction Funds (.pdf), identified “internal control weaknesses such as inadequate reviews of contractors’ invoices, insufficient numbers of, or inadequately trained oversight staff, poor inventory controls, high staff turnover, poor recordkeeping, insufficient price competition by subcontractors, and weak oversight of cash disbursements.”

Such weak internal controls opened the door to all sorts of fraud and abuse, the report says, and as of June 2012, “SIGIR investigators, working with other agencies’ investigators, have developed information used to indict 87 individuals and convict 71 individuals for fraudulent activities including bribery, kick-backs, theft of government funds and property, inflated invoices, delivery of insufficient or inferior goods, and bid rigging.”

As least someone was getting something out of the invasion. But think of all the projects  imagined but left unfinished: the optimistic (but oftentimes shortsighted or even wrongheaded) micro-economic development efforts, the Iraqi education and training programs, the infrastructure for basic services that earnest Americans helped build with Iraqi partners only to see the funding drain away or cut off completely. (For more on these and other heartbreakers, just check out Van Buren’s book.) This latest SIGIR report suggests the reconstruction effort was one big boondoggle for the war contracting business. And I bet if you took a poll of the American public that’s all they think it was at this point, too.

That’s why it will be more than perverse to see those same beltway bandits and the politicians who support them get up in front of congress this week to cry huge crocodile tears over the prospect of sequestration, the result of which (if it even happens) could bring defense spending back down to 2005 or 2007 spending levels, according to the number-crunchers I’ve spoken with.

According to The Hill, there will be lots of activity on Capitol Hill this week, with debate over the $608 billion Fiscal Year 2013 defense appropriations ($3 billion more than President Obama asked for), and a House Armed Services hearing on sequestration. The hearing will no doubt be well-covered by the press, and feature the Chicken Littles I wrote about last week, here and here. It will include Lockheed Martin’s Bob Stevens, EADS North America’s Sean O’Keefe, Pratt and Whitney’s David Hess and Williams-Pyro’s Della Williams.

Stevens, who made $25.8 million in compensation last year (the company itself got $42.9 billion in federal contracts and made $4 billion in profits in 2011), is also the CEO who gratuitously announced Lockheed would hand out pre-layoff slips to 123,000 of its workers if sequestration wasn’t reversed by Election Day.

Two weeks later, the committee will host top military brass to again, tell members how sequestration will “hollow out” the military as we know it.

These two hearings will no doubt produce some stellar sound bites for the crowd opposing further defense cuts and good copy for a few news cycles. Too bad the SIGIR reports hardly ever get as much play. Special IG Stuart Bowen has been doggedly determined for years, but he’s only a household name in those households where oversight and the post-invasion development of Iraq was ever of interest. In other words, not many households.

The same goes for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that often tackle the same issues. If the Democrats in support of the defense cuts had any sense they’d make use of this  incredibly revealing GAO report last year that indicates Iraq is just a microcosm of the terrible oversight and financial controls in the Pentagon as a whole. In fact, its conclusions sound all too much like SIGIR’s recent audit:

DOD financial management has been on GAO’s high-risk list since 1995 and, despite several reform initiatives, remains on the list today. Pervasive deficiencies in financial management processes, systems, and controls, and the resulting lack of data reliability, continue to impair management’s ability to assess the resources needed for DOD operations; track and control costs; ensure basic accountability; anticipate future costs; measure performance; maintain funds control; and reduce the risk of loss from fraud, waste, and abuse. DOD spends billions of dollars each year to maintain key business operations intended to support the warfighter, including systems and processes related to the management of contracts, finances, the supply chain, support infrastructure, and weapon systems acquisition. These operations are directly impacted by the problems in financial management. In addition, the long-standing financial management weaknesses have precluded DOD from being able to undergo the scrutiny of a financial statement audit.

So DoD is still unable to undergo the scrutiny of a financial audit, yet other agencies do, as a matter of course. And yet it will likely get the $608 billion it wants for FY2013, and even get pardoned from the most serious of sequestration scenarios if the beltway bandits and their surrogates in congress get their way. There will assuredly be more GAO and SIGIR-like reports to come, with the same lamentable conclusions. But one wonders if they are even worth cost, if no one is ever listening.

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