Wednesday, October 24, 2007

War Supplemental Makes Room for Iran

By Maya Schenwar

The Bush administration's $196.4 billion war supplemental spending request, released Monday, has Democrats reeling. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd called the supplemental "short-sighted at best," while House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey remarked in a statement, "It's amazing to me that the president expects to be taken seriously." Yet beyond the request's mind-boggling size, its open-ended aims point to the potentially vast scope of the "war on terror" for years to come - including an undiminished presence in Iraq and the possibility of action against Iran.

In the newly revised supplemental, more money than ever has been appropriated for procurement - the production of new materials, which may take three years to actually reach the battlefield, according to Department of Defense estimates in 2006. Moreover, that battlefield may change. The 2008 supplemental's title, the Global War on Terror Request, is appropriately broad, as the majority of the request's appropriations do not refer exclusively to Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, according to a report this morning in Congressional Quarterly Today, the Bush administration's request for a "Massive Ordnance Penetrator for the B-2 aircraft in response to an Urgent Operational Need from theater commanders" could be geared toward bombing underground targets in Iran.

Policy experts say that, as it stands, the supplemental contains no provisions that would prevent its funds from being used to strike Iran.

"With money allocated generally for the global war on terror and the defense department, if the military is ordered to bomb Iran, the administration could use those funds to pay for it," said Anita Dancs, research director of the National Priorities Project, in an interview. If the supplemental passes in its current form, even funds originally allotted to Iraq- or Afghanistan-specific activities might be funneled elsewhere. Dancs noted the Department of Defense has been granted such leeway in the past; earlier in the Iraq War, monies originally designated for reconstruction were transferred to military operations.

The supplemental request comes at a time when the Bush administration and its allies have Iran on high alert. Two months ago, a McClatchy Newspapers report indicated Vice President Dick Cheney was urging airstrikes on Iran; and in late August, President George W. Bush said in an address, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."

The Bush administration continues to send a message of urgency on Iran. "With continued foreign assistance, Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe before 2015," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University. "If it chooses to do so, and the international community does not take steps to prevent it, it is possible Iran could have this capability. And we need to take it seriously - now."

If taking it seriously means launching airstrikes, the current version of the 2008 supplemental would provide the means to fund them, according to Steven Kosiak, vice president of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "If the administration gets the money and decides in the next couple of months that they want to strike Iran, it could presumably use that money as well as base budget money to fund an attack," he said in an interview.

Though an occupation of Iran isn't likely - American troops are stretched thin as it is - major airstrikes would be monetarily feasible, drawing from both the base military budget and the supplemental, according to Kosiak. In this scenario, as in the case of the Iraq War, funds intended to be spent closer to the end of the fiscal year would be spent at the beginning. Then, yet another supplemental might eventually be necessary to maintain operations.

Airstrikes are not typically expensive in comparison to larger full-scale military operations: The war in Kosovo consisted largely of airstrikes and cost only about $3 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Under the supplemental's current form, the administration would have to stick to the amounts it has designated in the budget for operations and maintenance, procurement and personnel (though leeway to shift funds has been granted in the past). However, the funds could be used flexibly for operations outside Iraq, according to Jeff Leys, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

The supplemental's potential to go beyond Iraq and Afghanistan isn't limited to a possible strike on Iran. The 2008 request includes an unprecedented amount of "reconstitution" funding, money that theoretically goes toward replacing equipment. In reality, Kosiak says, it's often put toward military transformation and modernization - long-term goals that belie the supplemental's "emergency" status.

If reconstitution money is overflowing into projects to prepare the military for future actions, why is it packaged in a supplemental intended to supply "urgent military necessities," as President Bush stated upon the release of the request on Monday? It's easier to pass funding in a supplemental than a regular appropriations bill, according to Kosiak: because its passage is seen as an emergency, the supplemental is generally not subject to as much oversight.

Moreover, the request does not specify which of its projects will be implemented by mercenaries like Blackwater, Raytheon and DynCorp, or how much those corporations will be paid. "Beyond the fact that certain contractors make certain vehicles, there's no straightforward way to tell what funds go to contractors," Dancs said. And according to Kosiak, even with knowledge of which services companies like Blackwater provide, "there's no way to figure out how much is going to private contractors and how much to public employees."

In light of both the atrocities of the war and the loopholes hidden in the supplemental, many Congress members are wary of the prospect of voting on it. "I plan to proceed very carefully," Chairman Byrd said in a statement upon the release of the supplemental. "Every line-item will be scrutinized."

However, although Democrats in Congress almost universally oppose throwing more unconditional funding toward a failing war, they differ on how to place conditions on it.

In a statement three weeks ago, Chairman Obey said that he would not bring a supplemental to the floor for a vote if it perpetuated the status quo. It's unlikely the administration's request could be seen otherwise: The Army's justification for its original version of the 2008 supplemental states, "The FY 2008 estimate assumes a level of effort consistent with the tempo of FY 2007 operations." Though the justification for the amended supplemental has not yet been released, the major change between requests was the addition of $46 billion, and no significant language for redeployment was included.

A growing group of Congress members advocate including one overarching stipulation in any supplemental spending bill: All funds must be used to safely withdraw troops. This plan would mean voting yes on the supplemental, as long as it specifies that the troops come home, according to Nathan Britton, spokesman for Rep. Barbara Lee, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the proposal's crafters. "The administration wants to make it seem like those who are opposed to the war want to withhold funding from troops," Britton said. "This is a way to say no, we are using the funding to change the mission."

Although now is much better than never, prescribing an all-out change of mission would have been easier a couple of months ago, if Congress would have inserted Bush's original supplemental request into the general defense appropriations bill, according to Leys. "If they had included the supplemental in the baseline milit budget, they could have attached provisions to the appropriations bill for withdrawal deadlines" and against attacks on Iran, Leys said. "That would've created a situation where Bush would have had to sign it into law with those provisions, or veto the entire military budget."

For Rep. Dennis Kucinich, placing conditions on the supplemental is secondary; he holds that there's no need for a supplemental budget at all. Kucinich introduced a bill earlier this year to use existing funds for a whole-scale withdrawal within three months. "The Democratic leadership must tell the President NO to any additional funding," Kucinich said in a statement. "No legislation is required. No vote is required. We have the money to bring the troops home."

Maya Schenwar is a reporter for