When pressed by the Washington Post last week about why no one in his administration has been held accountable for the myriad failures in Iraq, President Bush sounded uncannily like Will Forte's petulant caricature on "Saturday Night Live": "Well, we had an accountability moment -- and that's called the 2004 election."
There was no word on whether the president then put his thumb on his nose and wiggled his fingers, or just went with the more efficient single middle finger.
In the next few weeks, Democrats in Congress will have an "accountability moment" of their own -- George Bush's request for another $80 billion to $100 billion in supplemental funding for the war in Iraq.
This will be the third time since the war began that the president has come to the Hill looking to refill his Iraqi coffers. The last two times, congressional Democrats helped rubber-stamp his requests, forking over $152 billion in military funding.
The time has come for Democratic leaders to say: "Not this time, Mr. President."
First they need to admit that they were wrong. Wrong to trust the president and wrong to allow him to put our troops in harm's way without a plan for post-Saddam Iraq, without significant allies (sorry, Bulgaria), and without an exit strategy.
It can be Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or the just-back-from-Iraq John Kerry or the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey -- but somebody with a (D) after his or her name needs to demand a straight answer to specific questions. Questions like: Mr. President, what are our long-term goals in Iraq? Are they realistic? How long will it take -- and how many more billions will have to be spent -- to reach them? What are our total casualty figures and how many more casualties are we willing to endure? Are we or are we not committed to a permanent presence there?
Democrats should begin the appropriations debate by demanding, at long last, a realistic assessment of the situation. While the president continues to sound like a happy-talk local weatherman, forever optimistic that the insurgency's torrential RPG and IED showers will soon be giving way to loads of sunny freedom and democracy, some high-profile Republicans -- perhaps looking to their legacies, or maybe just sick of the condescending lies -- are offering a gloomy forecast.
Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, recently told the president, "We're losing." And Brent Scowcroft, the outgoing head of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, warned that the Iraqi elections "have the great potential for deepening the conflict." So which is it, Mr. President? Are we about to witness Iraq's 1776 (with Grand Ayatollah Sistani taking on the role of Thomas Jefferson) or about to find ourselves smack in the bloody middle of a Shiite vs. Sunni holy civil war?
Democrats should then demand that the president explain his exit strategy and how long he thinks it will take before our troops come home. The White House originally figured we'd be in and out before the flowers tossed at the liberators' feet had wilted. That fantasy soon gave way to the notion that things would be better once we captured Saddam. Then once sovereignty was transferred ("Let freedom feign!"). Then once elections were held.
Now they're certain they'll be better, uh, when they get better. "Clearly, we don't see the election itself as a pivotal point," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suddenly announced last week. "It's the beginning of a process where Iraqis will write a constitution and at the end of the year will actually vote for a permanent government." So now it's when Iraqis vote for a "permanent government" -- which is precisely what many Arabs in the Middle East are afraid of. As a high-ranking Jordanian official told me: "When the mullahs take over, the election will turn out to have been one person, one vote, one time."
The Democrats should also do everything in their admittedly diminished power to try to place some conditions on this next round of funding before they vote. That is, after all, their job. The one they've sworn an oath to do.
For starters, they should demand an answer to the question, How do you propose to pay for the $100 billion? Will the president consider rolling back the tax cuts he gave the top 1 percent of American taxpayers, asking them to sacrifice in the name of freedom and democracy? (Yeah, right.) Or will he just add another hundred bil to the mounting tab he's running up for future generations?
Democrats should also link the money to a pledge from the administration that the first dollars spent will go toward making sure our troops have everything they need, including body armor, fully armored Humvees, GPS devices, and equipment to jam the signals insurgents use to activate the remote-controlled explosives that have caused the death and mutilation of so many young Americans. The Democrats should force the president to put our money where his lip service is.
They should also take the opportunity to turn the spotlight on the epidemic of fraud and corporate profiteering that have infected the Iraqi operation. The White House has to explain why taxpayers should cut it another $100 billion check when the money we've already forked over has been so poorly spent, much of it by administration cronies. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just 27 cents of every dollar earmarked for the rebuilding of Iraq is reaching ordinary Iraqis, with the rest being pocketed by big U.S. corporations.
What's more, nearly two years after we toppled Saddam, the people of Iraq still have to deal with massive food shortages, less electrical power than before the war, and disease-producing water and sewage systems. At the very least, Democrats should demand that Congress pass the bipartisan resolution cosponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin and Larry Craig calling for the formation of a special committee modeled on the one Harry Truman created during WW II to root out war profiteering.
And, finally, Democrats should force the president to address the question of whether the 14 "enduring bases" we're constructing around Iraq indicate plans to make a U.S. military presence there permanent. Even Bush family fixer James Baker is concerned about the message being sent by the bases: "Any appearance of a permanent occupation will both undermine domestic support here in the United States and play directly into the hands of those in the Middle East who -- however wrongly -- suspect us of imperial design."
Weren't U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia what initially caused Osama bin Laden to set his murderous sights on America? Bush needs to send an unequivocal message that there will be no long-term American military presence in Iraq. He can begin by getting rid of the clause in the interim Iraqi constitution that allows the United States to set up permanent bases. Does "sovereign" mean sovereign or doesn't it?
The Democratic leadership has a responsibility to act as the loyal opposition and not just throw up its hands and sign off on the funding. I realize that they are outnumbered and can't stop the White House from getting its way -- but the moral power of making a stand is critically important, especially coming after an election in which even staunch Democrats sometimes wondered what precisely their party stood for. What better way for Democrats to set the stage for the 2006 campaign than by forcing the Bush administration to level with the American people?
But the more I hear from congressional Democrats, the graver are my concerns about how ready they are for their accountability-moment close-up. Take Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This weekend, when Tim Russert asked whether, knowing there are no WMD in Iraq, he would still have voted for the war had he been in Congress, Emanuel went all John-Kerry-at-the-Grand-Canyon and answered "Yes." I had to get the transcript to make sure I hadn't misheard. I hadn't.
And it isn't just Emanuel. Judging from conversations I've had with a number of other congressional Democrats, it doesn't appear that there is a strategy -- let alone a clear one -- for how to deal with the appropriations request. As one House member told me, "We haven't even started thinking about it yet." Well, what have they been doing? Deciding what to wear to the inauguration of the guy who beat them because they "hadn't even started thinking about it" last year either?
The American people -- especially those being asked to put their lives on the line in Iraq -- deserve better than that.