Politics & Policy

Putting the War on Waivers

The latest duck and cover.

As House, Senate, and White House conferees meet to discuss the Iraq-war supplemental-funding bill, one thing is not in doubt. The war will be fully funded. Any notion that the Congress will attempt to use the power of the purse to cut funding in whole or part has foundered on the rocks of the veto power. Since the president is willing to exercise his power, and since veto-proof majorities are elusive, the result is stalemate. But the Congress will not respond by letting funding lapse. That would be similar to the mistake the Republican Congress made in 1995 when it shut down the government; President Clinton’s successful stage management of that crisis led to his political resurrection. Imagine the images — troops without spare parts and ammunition — families back home having to go on welfare because of cuts in combat pay and benefits — God forbid, reverses on the battlefield — and blame resting wholly with the Congress.

Legislators have sought various other ways to bring accountability to war funding. Timetables for example, with various drawdown and deadline dates. But deadlines were a non-starter for a variety of reasons, the most important being their lack of logical connection to realities on the ground. The dates seemed to be chosen at random, the only common factor being they all conveniently wrapped up large-scale U.S. involvement in Iraq in time for the 2008 election. I’m sure candidates on both sides would just as soon see the war issue evaporate, lest they be asked for concrete solutions to the challenges we are facing. (I still think having a “secret plan” is the way to go — it worked for Nixon in 1968. I have one of my own.)

War on the installment plan was another approach — two months of funding followed by more if progress is being made. This idea could never work; government budgets just do not function that way. And the practical impact of this approach is to push the issue back two months before facing it again, and enthusiasm for going through the process a second (and third, and fourth) time is limited.

Funding tied to metrics of progress was suggested. These could either be progress that Coalition forces are making, or progress made by the Iraqi government. The latter case might for example use passage of an oil revenue sharing law or settling other outstanding political issues as milestones. I like the idea of forcing the Iraqis to meet objectives — the only reason they have a constitution and government is because we laid down a strict timeline for putting that in place. The Iraqis don’t really have a “can do” political culture, but they do benefit from the billions of dollars we pump into their country, and they are not eager to see that dry up. So if we can use it as a tool to encourage political process, all the better. But this is something better done as a matter of national-security policy, not through funding bills.

Compromise has been elusive on any of these proposals, so now we have the latest rage — consequences with waivers. In various versions of this approach, a bill will be passed with timetables, metrics, or whatever, and the president will have the option of waiving the consequences should they com into play. A deadline is reached? Waive it. A milestone is not met? Ignore it. The beauty of this approach from the point of view of legislators is that they can adopt a penalty-free moral posture. Which is to say, whatever the novelties they load into the bill to score political points, they don’t have to worry that they will actually be implemented because the president is certain to waive them. So they get the credit for having done something, and can wash their hands of whatever the president actually does. Beautiful.

But will the waivers gimmick pass muster with the White House? It is non-threatening, does not tie the president’s hands, would have no impact whatever if the waivers were used. More importantly it allows Congress to fund the war without taking responsibility for it. Those who oppose the war can say that the bill they voted for contained timetables or milestones or metrics, and that but for the presidential waiver these would be in place. So the war as it actually exists is not their fault; they envisioned a different, better path. Indeed had it not been for the use of waivers the war might be over by now… You can see how the talking points would go.

Clearly a war that costs $11 million per hour cannot be sustained forever, nor should it be. Cutting back war funding, particularly that which goes directly to the Iraqis, would have an invigorating effect on their efforts to secure their own country. But those decisions should be made in the context of the overall war strategy, a topic which has been conspicuously lacking in the debate over the funding bill. As is stands it seems as though we are heading for a compromise that will have no impact on the conduct of the war, but will provide ample political cover for politicians who say they oppose it. It will be interesting to see if the White House goes along with the deal or sticks to its principles, thereby making others stick to theirs, like it or not.


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