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An impasse on Iraq

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a new Iraq resolution, but Washington is mired in partisan wrangling over reconstruction funds.

Published October 23, 2003

The international community is showing signs of becoming more unified on Iraq policy than Washington is. The broader international consensus on postwar Iraq is encouraging, but the increasingly bitter impasse in Washington is embarrassing - with the White House and Congress sharing blame.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution that gives the United Nations a greater role in postwar Iraq without compromising U.S. military control. The resolution was largely symbolic, but it represented broader agreement than the body managed to develop in the months leading up to war. More important, the Bush administration is promising concessions that will allow the World Bank and United Nations to oversee much of the reconstruction work in Iraq. By relaxing its control over contracts that have steered billions of dollars to politically connected American companies, the White House can defuse one of the most controversial elements of the Iraqi occupation.

Unfortunately, there has been no similar sense of compromise in Washington. The House and Senate have approved different versions of the administration's $87-billion request for military operations and reconstruction projects in Iraq, but the process has been grudging and petty. Moreover, much of the rhetoric on both sides has been inflammatory.

In recent weeks, the White House has taken a harder line with Congress than it has with other governments. Even some Republican senators say they were surprised by the president's adamant unwillingness to compromise on even the most dubious items in the $20-billion nonmilitary reconstruction package. Having committed ourselves to establishing a democratic society in Iraq, our government has a responsibility to commit the resources necessary to finish the job. However, that massive expenditure should be subject to at least as much accountability as domestic programs are.

Yet some prominent Democrats, including some of the party's presidential contenders, seem more interested in scoring political points than in building real accountability in Iraq. For example, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina both voted last fall to give President Bush authority to go to war in Iraq. But now that the war has become less popular, particularly among core Democratic voters, Kerry and Edwards are among the senators who say they will oppose the entire $87-billion aid package if it is not tailored to their liking. That position may give a temporary boost to their presidential campaigns, but it will do more permanent damage to their reputations for seriousness.

Many members of Congress in both parties failed their responsibility when they rushed to give the president authority to wage a pre-emptive war. Some failed to ask basic questions about the grave military and economic commitments our government was about to make. Others failed their own consciences by ignoring their misgivings and supporting what was then a politically popular cause. Now that the political winds have shifted, they are compounding their irresponsibility.

Say this much for many of the governments that originally opposed this war: They were willing to stand up to the world's most powerful nation because of legitimate differences over Iraq. Now, understanding the importance of stabilizing Iraq, they are willing to move beyond those prewar differences to rebuild an international consensus. Those are principled positions, whether or not one agrees with them. The same can't be said for the contorted positions of those members of Congress whose earlier support for the war, like their current opposition, has been based on little more than political calculation.

[Last modified October 23, 2003, 07:43:10]


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