22 May 2007

Set Benchmarks for Funding the Iraq War


Set Benchmarks for Funding the Iraq War

Bruce R. Scott

The Democratic leadership in Congress has tried to respond to the desire of the majority of Americans to reduce US involvement in Iraq by establishing performance benchmarks that would have to be met by the commanders on the ground and still more by the Iraqi authorities if the US is to maintain its troop commitments and Congress is to continue the funding of those commitments.

What the Democrats should do instead is attempt to reframe the debate by proposing that the President and Congress make provision to finance a growing share of the expenses for the US presence in Iraq from additional tax revenues rather than push all these costs on to future generations of taxpayers. This would be consistent with their insistence that the Congress accept responsibility for funding any new expenditures either from new revenues or from a reduction in existing spending.

While the details could be debated, the Democrats should propose a new set of benchmarks stating that beginning in July, at least 20% of the cost of the US deployment must be met from added tax revenues. This target could be increased to 40% by September, and so on up to 100%. This would hold the President and his Republican colleagues responsible for financing the remainder of the war for however long it lasts.

In addition, Congress could propose that these additional tax revenues come from downward adjustments of the original 2001 Bush tax cuts. This would allow a somewhat more equitable sharing of the sacrifices for the war, giving the rich a chance to participate along with military personnel, who thus far have been about the only Americans who have had to make a sacrifice of any kind.

Establishing a plan for progressively funding more of the war from current revenues would allow Congress to play its assigned role, which is to provide the funds for the commander-in-chief without trying to micromanage the war. It should also gradually turn up the pressure on the President and his congressional allies without in any way impairing the financial support needed for the troops.

If the President vetoed a bill containing not only the funding he wants but also the taxes to pay at least part of the cost, his actions would then be all about taxes and fiscal responsibility and not about troop levels and the support needed to protect those most exposed to danger.

At present Congress confronts a President who, jealous of his powers as commander-in-chief, wants to control both the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and their mission. It is not likely to be able to alter either of these commitments except by reducing funds. However, if the Democrats were to succeed in doing that or in forcing a “premature withdrawal,” they might well bear the blame for the meltdown that would most likely ensue.

It will not be much more promising to try to set benchmarks for the Iraqi government. The Iraqi authorities have demonstrated little capacity to work out some of their most vital issues, such as reigning in the sectarian militias that have infiltrated the army and police and ensuring a fair division of the oil revenues in the face of skepticism by the Kurds and Sunnis. At the same time, the Iraqi government can reasonably claim that any reduction in US support only further limits their prospects for success.

The President may well have gotten one thing right in his analysis of the situation in Iraq and more broadly in the Middle East—namely, that we face a catastrophe if we are unable to stabilize the situation so the Iraqis can sort things out in an orderly way. If the Iraqis don’t succeed, the US will share major responsibility for the tens of thousands of additional Iraqi deaths that will occur after our departure. Why not leave that responsibility to the President, but make sure that he and his supporters also take full responsibility for financing the US segment of the costs of a conflict that may go on for another year or more?

The time has come for Congress to use its power of the purse where it has the legitimacy and know-how. It should propose that a rising fraction of the war’s expenses be paid for through a rollback of the ill-conceived Bush tax cuts.

Bruce Scott is the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

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