The benchmarks included in the spending bill are tied directly to non-military spending in Iraq, essentially cutting off reconstruction aid if the Iraqi government doesn't achieve its U.S.-defined goals on time. But critics have said that the benchmarks shouldn't be the focus of the legislation.
"These are obviously important goals but making them into the benchmarks isn't going to advance reaching those goals one iota," said Jim Fine, legislative secretary for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
The withdrawal provision, which the White House has called "surrender dates," was one of the top priorities for Democrats who won the majority in Congress last November, mostly by campaigning on an anti-war platform. However, Democrats negotiating the compromise didn't want to be portrayed as unsupportive of the troops by withholding funding from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several lawmakers have pledged to renew their call for withdrawal this summer by seeking to attach timetables to later war financing measures.
The 18 benchmarks included in the bill have been reported as a concession by President Bush, who since January has pursued the additional military funding without any provisions. But the legislation includes a presidential waiver on the benchmarks that makes in essentially unenforceable.
"This is basically a blank check for the war," Fine told IPS.
Sen. Harry Reid, one of the legislators negotiating the bill, has called it "extremely weak," and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says she probably will not vote for the military funding portion of the bill. The House has decided to spilt up the vote on the emergency supplemental spending bill between the war funding portion and other funding, which includes a federal minimum wage increase and other domestic and military spending programs.
While Congress continues to debate funding for the war in Iraq, U.S. commanders, diplomats and advisors on the ground there have been formulating a plan for a new U.S. strategy in Iraq, according to The Washington Post. Headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the classified plan is based on a report issued last month by the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, a group of military officers, State Department officials and consultants.
This new strategy plans to keep U.S. troops at their current elevated level through the next year at least. Its three-pronged approach includes protecting the civilian population in some of Iraq's most violent areas, building the Iraqi government's capacity and removing members of Iraq's government who are believed to have sectarian or criminal agendas.
"On the positive side, they seem to be taking seriously the need to address the internal warring factions as was recommended by the Iraq Study Group," Fine said. On the other hand, he pointed out, "The plan is looking at a ramped up level of military involvement for at least a few years, if not longer."
This new plan, which sets goals for the end of this year and the end of 2008, has so far not been a part of Congress' debate on funding.
The bill that the House will vote on Thursday is not Congress' first attempt to provide additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The previous legislation provided 124 billion dollars in additional funding for Fiscal Year 2007 and included a timeline that set an Oct. 1 deadline to begin withdrawal.
The bill passed the House and the Senate in late April by a slim margin but the president vetoed that bill on May 1, as he had threatened to do, and Senate democrats were unable to find the support for a two-thirds majority vote to override the president's veto.
The House voted on another bill earlier this month that called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to start within 90 days of enactment. With a vote of 171-255 the vote failed, but it did demonstrate that there is a significant minority in Congress who are looking for ways that congressional action can bring the war to a close.
The new legislation, expected to make it to the president's desk by Friday, dropped several key provisions that Bush had objected to in the earlier version of the supplemental spending bill, including troop readiness requirements that would require the president to ensure that troops sent to Iraq were properly trained, equipped and rested.
But new opportunities to bring up U.S. troop withdrawal are already appearing in Congress. There is potential legislation that would call for implementation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations that came out in a report last December. Mention of withdrawal in this legislation would probably be weak but present, and the regional and internal dialogue would very likely be a component, Fine told IPS.
The next chance for a debate on funding and withdrawal will come when the House debates the Fiscal Year 2008 military authorization bill which will allocate funding for the war in Iraq starting in October. Two distinct factors will affect that debate. The progress in Iraq and the effect of the president's "surge" of troops will have a profound effect on both public and congressional support for the war. Gen. Petraeus is scheduled to report to Congress in September on his progress in Iraq.
The public reaction to this spending bill could also have an effect on Congress' next war funding debate. "In our conversations with representatives and congressional aids we hear much more concern and much more unease and even opposition to the administration's policies than we see reflected in legislation," Fine said.
In a meeting two weeks ago, moderate Republicans told the president that without significant improvement in the situation in Iraq, this fall would see more Republican lawmakers deserting his war plan. The lawmakers reported pressure from their constituents in moderate districts around the United States to end U.S. involvement in Iraq.
There is also a constituency of Iraqis that wants to set a finite end to the U.S. involvement in their country. A majority of Iraqi lawmakers earlier this month signed on to a petition calling for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. The petition calls for U.S. troops to be drawn down in parallel with increases in Iraqi troop readiness.
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Albion Monitor May
23, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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