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Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project. He is the co-author of The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of War and the Case for Bringing Home the Troops  .
When George W. Bush casually let slip last month that the level of U.S. forces in Iraq would be decided “by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," he dispelled any illusions of presidential accountability for the ongoing management of the war. Before the Senate debates spending another $70 billion for the Iraq War this week, they should check in with the U.S. public to see if they support another three years of war without a plan for bringing the troops home.
Late last year, the president had defined some limits, explaining that, “When our commanders on the ground tell me that Iraqi forces can defend their freedom, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”
But not surprisingly, the U.S. military is preparing for a much longer presence. Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, testified in Congress earlier this year that he couldn't rule out the possibility of permanent bases in Iraq.
Abizaid chose his words carefully for good reason. When Bush submitted the spending request to Congress, he included more than $300 million for construction of permanent bases. The request—the sixth "emergency supplemental" to date for the Iraq War—also funds the current troop levels of 133,000, a clear indication that the U.S. has no aim to reduce forces any time soon. If approved, it would bring the total bill for the war to $315 billion  .
As the Senate begins consideration of this request this week, they should use the moment to vote "no" on future funding of the war given the lack of a plan, no clear benchmarks for success, and the rising human and economic costs. If they refuse to do so, they should at least demand that Bush provide an estimate for the cost of three more years of war, along with a plan to pay the bill. These numbers would give both Congress and the public a good reality check on just how big of an economic hit we’re likely to take over the coming years.
Instead, conservative Republicans on the Hill are poised to use the debate around the spending bill to rally against pet projects, like relocating a railroad  , which their colleagues have slipped into the bill. Such pork should be trimmed, but the real focus should be asking the White House for a plan to “offset” the cost of this unpopular war—not by stripping social programs for society’s weakest, but perhaps by rolling back some of those tax cuts for society’s wealthiest.
With visions of Iraqi oil paying for the war now up in smoke, every dime the administration has spent on the war it’s had to borrow. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated in January that the interest alone on the war tab will cause the costs to double. The administration has consistently argued that it can't plan for the expenditures as they don't know how many troops will be in Iraq. That excuse is now over now that Bush has committed troops to Iraq for the next three years.
Bush has also argued that the bill from the war can be paid by a growing economy. While he's correct that the U.S. economy has grown, it hasn't kept pace with a skyrocketing deficit. During his time in office, Bush has presided over a 46 percent increase in the federal debt, from $5.6 trillion to $9 trillion. Given this dire situation, it's hard to see how Bush can argue that the long-term costs of the Iraq War, estimated at $1-2 trillion, can be paid for by future generations.
If senators refuse to cut funding for the war, they must still do more than merely ask for the bill and figure out how to pay for it. The Senate should demand to know exactly what the president is planning for our troops to be doing in Iraq over the next three years.
Whether or not a member of Congress voted for the war in Iraq is no longer the issue. No one can dispute the poor planning of the war, mismanagement at the Pentagon, the outrageous costs and the damage the war is doing to our soldiers and the Iraqi people. Congress should insist on seeing the president's plan and budget for the next three years instead of blindly throwing more money at the problem.
Earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., advanced this notion on the Senate floor—arguing that, "Congress should … vote on whether or not to keep American troops in Iraq for at least three more years."
Senator Wyden is right. And he would be wise to put this bold idea forward as an amendment to the spending bill. Our leaders in Congress have given the president a way too long a leash in handling the war. Given the lack of results, it is now time for stricter oversight, a plan from the administration and an up-or-down vote from the Congress.
Bush's declaration of a war without end is a sharp contrast to what the American public wants. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, or 64 percent, including 44 percent of Republicans, favor withdrawing some or all U.S. troops from Iraq.
Over the last three years, nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died. At least 30,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, although the toll could be 10 times that number. The U.S. has borrowed $315 billion for the war. Before giving the administration a green light for three more years of war Congress should demand a clear plan.