Following a week in which the United States suffered the most military fatalities since the fall of Saddam Hussein, pundits and politicians are now calling on President Bush to level with the American people about the grim challenges we currently face in Iraq. As the administration readies itself to launch a massive public relations effort to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis, it is clear that a parallel effort at home is necessary to counter the erosion of public support for the war.
Over the weekend, President Bush reminded us that we cannot afford to allow our efforts in Iraq to fail. He is right. To do so would inflict terrible harm on our national security, as well as damage U.S. credibility abroad for decades. However, with the latest upsurge in violence and rapidly rising human and financial costs, it is unclear how much political pain the White House can withstand and how much longer the American public will tolerate the bad news.
With more than 129,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq, the cost of military operations next year is expected to exceed $60 billion (on top of $150 billion already spent to date). The operation in Iraq has been funded through emergency supplemental spending bills separate from the Pentagon's regular budget. In an unusual step, the administration has indicated that it will wait until January 2005 to request next year's supplemental. This would hide the true costs of the war and the impact on the American taxpayer until after the November election.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, the military chiefs warned that delaying the supplemental could create a shortfall in funding for military operations at the end of the fiscal year. When questioned, administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, refused to provide details about the size and timing of the request. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have rightfully expressed concern and frustration about the lack of transparency on the topic= Many have even begun to discuss ways to provide the funding in the absence of the administration's initiative.
If the president really wants to prove his resolve to the American people and Congress, he should immediately send his supplemental request to Capitol Hill. Such a move would send a powerful message to our soldiers abroad, the public, Iraqis, and the international community that America is committed to stability in the Middle East. With the Congressional recess only months away, failure to do so would automatically delay passage of the funds until September at the earliest, forcing our troops to deal with uncertainty through what is likely to be a hot summer marked by continuing attacks.
The supplemental request should place special emphasis on the following:
Providing funds necessary to guarantee no interruption in the flow of critical resources for troops in the field.
Ensuring troops are deployed with life-saving body armor, armor-kits for their HUMVEES, and other necessary equipment.
Fixing pay problems that have plagued the National Guard and Reserve, which are expected to comprise over 40 percent of our force by June 30 this year.
Funding to increase the size of the U.S. Army by at least 40,000 troops to relieve overburdened units and safeguard the future of our military force structure.
Providing aid packages to convince current allies to stay the course in Iraq and persuade new allies to provide immediate support on the ground.
The announcement should be accompanied by the long-overdue public discussion of the administration's plans for dealing with the turmoil beyond the June 30 transfer of authority. The president should be actively making his case to the American people for long-term engagement in Iraq. The failure to do so at this critical juncture could forfeit the fight in Iraq, dealing a devastating blow to our national interests.
Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.