Democrats see Iraq funding bill as defining issue of session." That's the headline on a story in the Sept. 28 Juneau Empire on the $87 billion President Bush is requesting for Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar article in the Sept. 26 Washington Post has the headline, "In GOP, Concern Over Iraq Price Tag." It's reassuring to see some bipartisan support for stepping back and asking if the administration might just be going too far this time.
The Washington Post story goes into line item detail of the $20.3 billion for reconstruction. In addition to the $900 million to import petroleum products into Iraq and $19 million to set up wireless Internet service cited in the Empire article, there's $20 million for a four-week business course at $10,000 per student; $100 million to build seven planned communities with a total of 3,258 houses, plus roads, an elementary school, two high schools, a clinic, a place of worship and a market for each; $10 million to finance 100 prison-building experts (not the prisons themselves) for six months at $100,000 per expert; two prisons at $50,000 per bed for $400 million; and on and on. The prisons and prison experts are particularly interesting since one thing Saddam Hussein did leave his country was an extensive prison system.
Jim Dyer, Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, is quoted as saying, "We're not talking sanity here. The world's second-largest oil country is importing oil and a country full of concrete is importing concrete." In spite of Mr. Dyer's concerns, Republican leaders are pushing to have the entire $87 billion passed. Democrats are suggesting that $67 billion be set apart for military spending in order to get money for the troops passed. But White House budget spokesperson Trent Duffy said they want Congress to pass the entire amount: "The package is a wartime supplemental (spending bill), directly tied to the security and the ultimate withdrawal of United States forces from the region. It has to be viewed in that context."
Last week I met with Nathanial York, an Alaskan whose nonprofit organization is building schools for girls in northern Afghanistan using local labor. He got the idea while in Afghanistan last year. A broken window needed replacing in a building and he was told it would cost only $3.00. Since then, he's built two schools. According to his budget figures, the construction of a classroom costs $3,000. Classroom supplies for 60 students cost $80. A desk and bench for three students is $20. (His Web site is at afghanistanproject.org.) If the White House's Mr. Duffy wants the spending bill viewed in context, then I for one have a new more informed context thanks to Mr. York.
History has taught us that we can't blindly trust our leaders to do the right thing in wartime or in peace. That is not good citizenship and it is not patriotism. We need to question those things that don't look right to us. It's just plain immoral to use our men and women in uniform and the fear of terrorism to line the pockets of mega-contractors on the administration's "A" list. You have to ask yourself, were the needs matched to the contractors or was any thought given to the basics that these countries are desperate for? To state the obvious, the people have some very basic needs. I haven't seen any Iraqis interviewed on television complaining that they don't have access to the Web.
I hope that Senator Stevens, Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young will carefully scrutinize the administration's bill for both the military and reconstruction. While our troops are in the line of fire every day in Iraq, it's only right that the president's and vice president's feet are held to the fire. Maybe Senator Stevens will even wear his Incredible Hulk necktie to the hearing. This time not just for Alaskans, but on behalf of all Americans and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barbara Belknap is an activist with community building organizations in Juneau.