2008-04-25 / Columnists

Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill

The President Pushes 'Pause Button' On Iraq Policy
Comment By Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MEEKS GREGORY MEEKS Although we often feel harassed by 24-hour cable news coverage of the same thing over and over, it's amazing how quickly pivotal developments disappear from the headlines and tag lines. Let a candidate misspeak and we will hear about it for at least a week.

Really important issues, however, come and go in a day or two.

For example, where's the in-depth follow up on the recent testimony of our top diplomat and military officer in Iraq?

Just over two weeks ago I sat through a House Foreign Affairs hearing listening intently to hour after hour of testimony from Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of our military forces there. The occasion was yet another Administration attempt to convince Congress and the American people that the president's policy has turned the corner. If it has, it's only been to end up not far from where it started. Even Gen. Petraeus said he, "didn't see any lights at the end of the tunnel."

He was referring to the much-advertised success of the surge, which appears to have turned us from refereeing a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis to doing that plus babysitting an escalating factional conflict between Shiite militias.

The Iraqi Accountability Act passed by Congress and signed into law by the president last summer required Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to regularly report on progress in reaching 18 benchmarks the legislation set. This time they barely mentioned the benchmarks. What their full day of less than clear testimony before the Senate International Relations and Armed Services Committees followed by a full day of even less clear testimony before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees did clarify is that President Bush has no intention of reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq below pre-surge levels.

Petraeus informed us that when troop reductions reach the pre-surge level he wants at least a 45-day pause to "consolidate and evaluate" before proceeding with further draw downs. President Bush promised Petraeus "all the time he needs." In effect, the president pushed the pause button on his patently unwinnable war. Apparently all he really wants is to be in a position to claim after leaving office that Iraq wasn't "lost" on his watch.

We have lost plenty else on his watch: 4,024 troops killed and 29,676 wounded in combat. The 1.7 million troops that have been deployed in Iraq have lost plenty ? especially in productivity and family time: Nearly 800,000 are parents, almost 600,000 have been deployed more than once, over 35,000 have been deployed four or more times, 260,000 have had to be treated at veterans' health facilities upon their return home, nearly 100,000 have been diagnosed with mental health problems, and another 200,000 have received walk-in medical care.

We've lost huge amount of

our national treasury. Two months ago, the Congressional Research Service reported that we were spending $3,919 a second; $235,160 a minute; $14.1 million an hour; $338 million a day; $2.4 billion a week; $10.3 billion a month; and an average of $123.6 billion a year. Those numbers have only grown. Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, as well as Harvard University professor and budget expert Linda Bilmes say the total long-term cost of the Iraq war may exceed $3 trillion.

About a dozen troops were lost during the week that Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified. When Mr. Bush announced the surge in January of last year, he said increased troop levels would create space for the government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to stabilize Iraq, reconcile sectarian differences, enact an oil revenue law, reform the de-Baathification decree, and hold local elections. What's been achieved? Fifteen months of more lost lives and resources. Whatever minor progress may have been made is seriously jeopardized by the failures of Iraq's political and governmental leadership. Recent events in Basra demonstrate just how limited Maliki's government is. Over 1,000 security personnel deserted their posts and joined one or another Shiite militia to battle government troops. More than 1300 Iraqi troops and policemen who either deserted or refused to fight had to be fired. The truce that ended the fighting reportedly was brokered, not in Iraq by the Iraqi government or our diplomats or our military, but in Iran.

Meanwhile, largely because of the Iraq war, our overall troop readiness is overstretched. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields noted on the PBS News Hour that the Pentagon has given three times the number of "moral waivers" (generally to recruits with felony violations) as it has in the past and that the lowest percentage of high school graduates in the last 25 years were recruited in 2007.

Despite the brilliance and bravery of our military forces in Iraq, the surge hasn't fulfilled the main objectives President Bush originally set. The failure is not theirs; it's the presi-dent's and flows from the false and flawed premises upon which he took us to war and keeps us at war.

Changing circumstances, changing conditions, changing dynamics, or changing the name of this or that policy will not change the fact of this historic failure of presidential leadership and judgment.

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