How are blown-up Iraq oil pipelines, Florida hurricanes, and the 2004 election all connected? At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, senators connected the dots: National Guard units stationed in Iraq won’t be available for duty during hurricane season now under way in Florida (27 electoral votes). Guard families are fed up by the long deployments of their loved ones. And, with the election approaching, some members of Congress may seek to exploit the situation to defeat President Bush.
It was only at the end of the half-day hearing at which senators grilled Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers about the Iraq deployment that a Bush ally, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, brought up next year’s election.
“The American people understand that we are engaged already in the presidential election and that there are those who criticize the president’s handling of the war in Iraq in order to gain political advantage,” Cornyn said. “I find something unsavory about comments of those who seek political advantage in questioning our commitment to our troops.”
While Cornyn named no names, he may have had in mind Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who had charged earlier in the hearing that it was “unforgivable” that Pentagon planners had not figured out how to prevent attacks on American soldiers.
“What planning was done to provide for the safety of our troops, which is so inadequate at the present time? Who is going to pay the price for the inadequacy of that planning?”
“Someone ought to be accountable!” thundered Kennedy.
It was Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who made the hurricane connection. Telling Myers and Wolfowitz that too much of the burden had been put on Florida National Guard units, he reminded them that typically at this time of year Guard members clean up and patrol after hurricanes hit the state.
GUARD FAMILIES COMPLAIN
Florida Guard units, he said, “are now stretched to the breaking point” by tours of duty in Iraq.
Guard spouses and family members have had enough, Nelson reported: “The families of those that are still fighting have waited patiently, but that patience is beginning to break. ... The Guard leadership is now being overwhelmed by the calls from the families for the soldiers to come home. ... I don’t have to tell you, but I’m going to, because I’m reflecting my folks: livelihoods and civilian careers are inherently at risk for deployed Guard and Reserve.”
Why, Nelson asked, were some Guard units in North Carolina and Arkansas being told to stand down while Floridians were still in Iraq? (Bush carried all three states in the 2000 election.)
Myers promised that military leaders would do what they could to ease the burden on Florida units. “Predictability in the lives of all our armed forces is very important,” and especially important with reservists and Guard members. But he also reminded the panel that America was at war and that those in uniform would be asked to do far more than in peacetime.
MORE TROOPS NEEDED?
As hard as they tried during the marathon hearing, the Democrats, joined by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., couldn’t get Wolfowitz and Myers to agree that more U.S. troops needed to be dispatched to Iraq. Nor could they get them to agree that the total number of men and women in uniform ought to be increased.
Myers did concede at one point that the Army probably did not have enough military police and civil affairs officers in its ranks.
But as for the Iraq deployment, Central Command Chief Gen. John Abizaid and his subordinates “have said repeatedly that not only don’t they need more troops, they don’t want more American troops,” testified Wolfowitz. “What do they do want is more international troops to share the burden of providing stability forces. ... Most of all, they want more Iraqi troops because it is their country we have liberated.”
McCain pointed out the oddity of the Bush administration arguing on the one hand that more U.S. troops need not be sent, but on the other hand that foreign governments should be willing to send their own soldiers to take the bullets that otherwise would have hit Americans.
“I don’t get the logic,” said McCain.
RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION
In a post-hearing briefing for reporters, Wolfowitz said Pentagon planners were scrutinizing recruitment and retention data, given the grueling and dangerous duty the troops face in Iraq.
“We look at it very closely,” Wolfowitz said. “I must say it is a wonderful statement about the patriotism of the men and women serving, including in the Guard and Reserve who are under additional strain, that so far we have good re-enlistment and retention rates. But we can’t take anything for granted.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, told MSNBC.com, “you can’t get out of the Army now. They have stop-loss orders I think in lots of places, so if you can’t leave, you’re retained. The recruitment issue, I’m sensing, is going to be a serious problem. I think when my National Guardsmen and -women come back from Iraq after a year in country, months preparing, and months demobilizing, their appetite to re-enlist and other appetites for younger soldiers to join up is going to be diminished substantially.”
While recruitment may be a long-term worry, for now there appears to be no movement in the Senate to cut off funds for operations in Iraq, as was done during the Vietnam War by the McGovern-Hatfield amendment.
But citing the cost, some Democrats are making the comparison of the Iraq effort to Vietnam.
“This may not be Vietnam, but boy, it sure smells like it. Every time I see these bills coming down for the money, it’s costing like Vietnam, too,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on Monday. Harkin has been criticized in his state for voting for last October’s congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq.
Kennedy will offer an amendment to require that Bush report to Congress and specify a schedule for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq before Congress OKs $20 billion of the total $87 billion request he wants for Iraq reconstruction. The Kennedy amendment would not apply to the money earmarked to pay for U.S. troops in Iraq.