A Game of Chicken on Iraq Funding

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Chris Hondros / Getty

Army Lt. Jacob Carlisle takes leads his platoon on patrol in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq.

What war planners call "denial and deception" is a key part of any military campaign, and congressional Democrats believe it is also figuring into the campaign to secure funding for the Iraq war. As the Bush administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill square off over war funding, the White House and its Pentagon allies are warning that the military will soon have to start shutting down stateside bases if more money isn't provided for the war. But congressional Democrats say there is plenty of slush in the Pentagon's funds, and that the military, and the war, can continue running at full-throttle for months.

Defense experts disagree on the seriousness of the Pentagon's funding crunch. Of course, if war — as the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it — is simply the continuation of politics by other means, it should be no surprise that funding a war as controversial as Iraq will be a highly contentious business. And while the Pentagon can surely move money between its various funding streams to keep the war going for a while, it's also obvious that the Bush administration is counting on a political backlash to force the Democrats to back down, as they've done in the past.

Each side has a piece of the truth on its side. With the nation at war, Pentagon bureaucrats have far better things to do than juggle accounts to keep the war machine humming while planning to lay off some 200,000 civilians and contractors if Congress fails to pass a bill acceptable to the White House. But the Administration is encouraging the sense of an impending train wreck, shouting early and often that doom is just ahead. "There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers," Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned November 15. "This is a serious misconception."

But Gordon Adams, a veteran defense-budget expert who oversaw military spending from inside the Clinton White House, thinks Gates is overstating the case to put pressure on Congress. "Sad that the secretary seems to want to make civilians at the Defense Department pay the price for the Administration's political wrangle with the Congress on Iraq funding," he says. There are sufficient funding tricks that could be used to fund the entire military through March, he argues, rather than issuing warnings of impending layoffs that almost are certain never to happen. "The brinksmanship doesn't serve the nation well and is not necessary."

This game of chicken occurs even though Congress has already sent the military $460 billion for its operations in fiscal 2008, which began October 1. But funding for actual war-fighting is generally not included as part of the standard military budget. Instead, it comes from Congress in the form of supplemental funding bills. This year, President Bush is seeking $196 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress wants to approve a $50 billion slice of that to fund the wars through the winter, but with conditions attached — most importantly, calling for an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq by 2009. Senate Republicans blocked the bill with a filibuster on November 16. House Democrats argue that a phone call from Bush to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to pass the legislation would end the impasse — if Bush would accept the accompanying deadline on U.S. combat operations.

But the Democrats have failed repeatedly to pass any restrictions on Bush's ability to wage the war he sees fit, and the White House shows no sign of backing down this time around. In fact, the chances of the Administration subscribing to any kind of restrictive legislation grows dimmer as the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to improve. "To pull the rug out from under them now seems irresponsible," White House press secretary Dana Perino said last week. Indeed, the betting inside the Pentagon is that the Democrats will fold in the coming weeks, once they feel comfortable telling their supporters that they tried their best to shut down the war.

The White House's confidence can be seen in its willingness to deploy Gates, rather than anonymous Pentagon bookkeepers, as the point man on the issue. Bush, Gates insisted last week, has begun to withdraw troops from Iraq, just as the Democrats have demanded. "The drawdowns have already started," Gates said. "It's really not about principles, it seems to me, anymore — it's about pacing. And that's where I think deference should be paid to the views of those conducting the operations."

But House Democrats reject such arguments. Bush's announcement in September that he was beginning a drawdown was "a study in calculated public deception," Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said last week. The pullout of 30,000 troops by next summer will still leave about 140,000 troops in Iraq, the same size force that was there before the 30,000-strong "surge" began earlier this year. "He made clear in that speech that as far as he's concerned," Obey said, "we're going to be there for the next decade."

Rep. John Murtha, the gruff former Marine and Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee's defense panel, expressed wonderment that anyone would believe what the Pentagon has to say about its coffers running dry. "Because the Pentagon says it, you believe it?" he asked a reporter at a November 20 press conference with Obey. "Go back and look — 'Mission accomplished,' al-Qaeda connection, weapons of mass destruction, on and on and on, and you believe the Pentagon?" He calls the Pentagon's alarmist warnings "Rumsfeld-like," which is perhaps the ultimate insult in Washington today.