Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Next stop, The Surreal Life!

Yesterday's snapshot noted the House Committee on the Budget's hearing on Iraq's Budget Surplus and since the hearing's gotten so little attention, we'll note some more of it.  (Ironically, Katrina vanden Heuvel's insisting that it's time to 'get real' but to read anything at The Nation is to grasp Katrina's as ignored at The Nation as she is in the rest of the world.  Katha Pollitt's 'getting real' about the issues by writing about . . . castrating bulls.)  US House Rep John Spratt Jr. chairs the committee with Paul Ryan being the Ranking Member of the Republican Party.  The first panel is our focus and that was when the committee heard testimony from the Government Accounting Office's Joseph A. Christoff.  Spratt noted that while the US budget deficit was "expected to exceed $400 billion for the current fiscal year," Iraq is expected to see a huge budget surplus in the billions.  Christoff explained that the estimate for Iraq's surplus this year is between $67 billion and $79 billion dollars.  US House Rep Chet Edwards was noted yesterday and he highlighted the physical costs to the US (the lives of US service men and women), the financial cost, the predictions by then Dept. Sec of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 2003 that Iraq would be paying "for its own reconstruction" and the new $3 billion dollar deal Iraq had just signed with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation.  US House Rep Lloyd Doggett was also noted yesterday and he wanted to focus on the failure of the benchmarks -- set by the White House.  Christoff wanted to dicker with Doggett over this so Doggett used his time to go through as many as possible to illustrate that the benchmarks are not being met.  He noted at the end, "And I see my time's up but, Mr. Chairman, we can keep going down the objectives that President Bush set himself for success, for victory, in Iraq and you'll find that it continues to fail, that this policy has been a failure.  American tax payers are having to fund the failure while the Iraqis pay a fraction of the price we pay for a gallon of gasoline."   Last night, Mike noted some of US House Rep James McGovern's testimony and we'll note some of the hearing beginning with McGovern.
James P. McGovern: And the government of Iraq, the Maliki government, I know that you didn't look at the issue of corruption, but it is corrupt. I wouldn't trust them to tell me the correct time. . . . And we're hearing people kind of rationalizing and explaining away why they don't need to spend their surplus, you know why we need to continue to shoulder the burden. Why would the Iraqi government want to change this sweet deal that they have with the US government? We are a cheap date in this whole matter. I mean we are giving and giving and giving and sacrificing and sacrificing and sacrificing and yet they have this incredible surplus. So what are the incentives and what should we be doing, what should this administration be doing, what should Congress be doing, to kind of force this issue?  You have obviously talked to the people in the administration and people in the department.  What is the plan?  What is the plan to kind of, to transition, to kind of force the Iraqi government's hand, you know, to take more responsibility that we can get out, we can end our occupation, we can end our involvement here and stop sacrificing so much of our resources in this effort?
Joseph Christoff:  Uhm, I don't know if I've seen a plan that would actually talk about transitioning so that the Iraqis begin spending more money.  But I think you all have begun that debate within the Congress.  As I mentioned before, when you passed a portion of the supplemental in June you had about $3 billion for what's called the Economic Support Fund.  That was the first time that there was legislation that called for Iraq to have  a dollar for dollar cost share for the small reconstruction projects that this ESF fund supports. I also know that in part of the NDA discussion there is discussion about also extending that type of cost-sharing to what we provide for the continued training and equipping of Iraq security forces.  That area alone, we've appropriated -- you've appropriated -- $20 billion dollars.
James P. McGovern: Well I realize that's a step in the right direction but quite frankly it's kind of a modest -- less than modest -- step in the right direction. We've been doing this for years now, we've been involved in this war for many years.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, about this war  has turned out as advertised by the proponents of this war and it just seems to me that given the nature of the Iraqi government, given the problem of corruption in that government and given what I believe is an unwillingness to take more responsibility in light of the fact that they don't need to.  I mean, again, we're spending $10 billion a month.  Ten billion dollars a month in Iraq and they have these surpluses.  I guess my frustration is that there isn't more frustration by those who -- proponents of this war to force the Iraqi government's hand to take more responsibility.  But I appreciate your testimony.  I think it's very helpful.  
Next up was US House Rep Bob Etheridge.
Bob Etheridge: I guess as I look at that and think of the numbers and where we are, I happen to represent a lot of men and women at Fort Bragg and Pope [Air Force Base] who spent an awful lot of time oversees.  At the same time, their children attend the public schools here in the United States and my question, I think, sort of fits in a little different area than what we've heard as you've mentioned we're spending about $10 billion a month of US revenues in Iraq and your report tells us that Iraqi government is not spending its own funds to maintain these reconstruction projects at a level they should.  Actually only about 14% of the 28 that's allocated for security, water, oil, electricity, etc. And we have a myriad of spending needs here at home. I won't even go through the list, I just want to talk about one of them because we need to be building some school buildings in and around my district [second district of North Carolina] where we've got children in trailers and we've got one school that has 50% of our military children in buildings that ought to be able to have modern buildings. My question to you is what factors are keeping the Iraqis from taking more responsibility for its own reconstruction? And how can we address that problem or how should we address it?
Joseph Christoff: Well the factors that were cited in terms of their low expenditure rates for investment -- that's for reconstruction --  were the fact, again, that they have weak procurement budgeting, contracting procedures in place, they have low thresholds in terms of the approving authorities.  They have to go the highest levels to get actually approving authority for the contracting.  They have a brain drain in terms of the many technocrats that left the country that were responsible for many of these budgeting procurement issues.  I've spoken with DoD advisors to the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior. They have difficulties just teaching basic accounting and spreadsheet technology to some of the Iraqis.  And also keep in mind, this is a cash-based economy.  Things are done by cash.  They have hand ledgers to keep track.  There is not -- there is not an automated financial management sytem in place within Iraq.
Bob Etheridge: I think the thing that bothers me and I think a lot of folks who remember, you know the US tax payers have financed nearly $50 billion in Iraqi reconstruction in addition to all the other funds we've put in place and now we're spending about 10 billion a month and at the same time we see almost 80 billion in surplus.  And then I'm reminded, and I think most folks are, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said in 2003 that the Iraqis could pay for reconstruction themselves and relatively soon.  And I think we have a chart here, chart one, that shows that.  Now it's quite obvious he was wrong or overstated or something because we pay twice.  We've paid a 50 billion dollar reconstruction bill and now we're spending 10 billion a month and we're paying billions of dollar at the pump with gasoline.  Is this a fair assessment?  I mean, I just this weekend had people climb on my shoulders and I don't disagree with them.  They are paying a ridiculous price for gasoline and at the same time in Iraq they're subsidizing their citizens and we're paying more for it over there to keep our troops in Iraq.
Joseph Christoff: Well I think in terms of the Secretary's original statement Iraq does have now the capabilities to begin financing its reconstruction.  It didn't have it in the part of 2003 or 2004.  When you're talking about paying at the pump . . . Now I mentioned the $1.18 per gallon but frankly that's the price in the region.  That's what Kuwaitis pay, Saudis pay.  So the IMF goal was to try to get them to raise their prices  to at least the regional level and they have dramatically reduced their subsidies for gasoline, kerosene and diesel.  Trying to give them a little bit of credit for their achievements.

Bob Etheridge: But my concern is that our troops aren't getting that benefit over there and we aren't getting it in terms of paying for it by the American citizens buying that fuel to help protect them.
Joseph Christoff: Yeah I think in fact that when we look at receipts where Iraq actually sold its oil about a third of the oil did come to the United States.
Etheridge's time was up and Moore went next.
Dennis Moore: Do you know the projected United States' deficit for this year?

Joseph Christoff: Well the latest CBO was approaching over $400 billion
Dennis Moore: So we are approaching, according to CBO projection, a $400 billion deficit as a nation to add to our 9.6 trillion debt now is that correct?
Joseph Christoff: Based upon what I read in the CBO projections that correct.  
Dennis Moore: And Iraq has a projected surplus this year of $70 billion dollars?
Joseph Christoff: Up to $79 billion.
Dennis Moore: Up to $79 billion.  What's wrong with this picture that we have a huge projected deficit, they have a good projected surplus and they're asking us basically to pay for reconstruction in Iraq?  I guess I'm asking a rhetorical question because I think you've already answered that. What incentive, from your perspective, does the Iraqi government have to step up and assume responsibility for this if they've got us paying for everything right now? Not only money, but 4,000 American lives.
Joseph Christoff: Well I think that remains a concern in terms of how you incentivize the Iraqi government to begin spending of its own money.  The incentives are also going to have to come on the part of the Iraqi people.  They are still only getting about ten hours of electricity a day.  They're still not getting potable water.  Only a third of the children in Iraq have clean water even despite our reconstruction efforts.  So there has to be some incentivizing on the part of the Iraqi people to demand more from their own government.
Dennis Moore: And the Iraqi people have to step up to the plate and support their own government, don't they?
Joseph Christoff: Mmm-hmm.
Dennis Moore: If anything's going to change here? 
Joseph Christoff: Yes.
Dennis Moore: But they do have gasoline for $1.18 a gallon and we have gasoline for $3.50 a gallon in this country.  Is that about right?
Joseph Christoff: I bet disiel cars pay a little bit more.
Dennis Moore: Good.  Good.  And so basically right now what we're doing -- and this is the last question I have -- we're just charging the reconstruction cost to our national charge card and passing the bill on to our children and grandchildren and future generations in this country, isn't that correct?
Joseph Christoff: Well we have spent -- you have appropriated $48 billion for reconstruction and stabilization
Dennis Moore: Yes sir.
Joseph Christoff: Of the big infrastructure projects are tapering off so the additional money you've been providing through the economic support fund is for smaller reconstruction projects.  But we still have spent a chunk of change in trying to rebuild that country. 
Tim Bishop went next and note that when Moore was saying "Good. Good." he was also attempting to shut off his cell phone which had begun ringing, 
Tim Bishop: My understanding, the first Iraq War, total cost was about $61 billion.  The net cost to the United States was about $2.1 billion.  And the difference between gross cost and net cost was in some cases in-kind contributions from some of our coalition partners and in other case our coalition partners simply reimbursed us for monies that we laid out.  Does that comport with your understanding?
Joseph Christoff: I don't know sir.  I know we did reports back in 91 and 92 in which we saw that -- we actually made a bit of a profit on the last war?
Tim Bishop: I won't comment.  What structural and/or legal impediments exist right now -- if any -- that would prevent Iraq from simply reimbursing us from their surplus for some portion of what we have already laid out?
Joseph Christoff: I don't know.  I would have to look into that and perhaps get back to you for the record.

Tim Bishop: Does that not represent a reasonable course of action for this country? To try to recoup some of the enormous amounts that we have laid out while Iraq is sitting on this very substantial surplus?
Joseph Christoff: Sir, I would think that was a policy decision that I would reserve to the Congress because I don't think it's appropriate for GAO to comment.
Tim Bishop: Secondly, if I understand your summary correctly, Iraq has spent approximately $4.3 billion dollars over a three year period on its reconstruction and on provision of services, is that about right?
Joseph Christoff: The $4.3 billion dollars is for the four critical sectors that we looked at.
Tim Bishop: And we have spent about $42 billion?
Joseph Christoff: Well that's $42 billion in total for all of our reconstruction.
Tim Bishop: For reconstruction --
Joseph Christoff: Beyond those four sectors.
Tim Bishop: So if I've done my math correctly, $42 billion -- every dime of which has been borrowed --  the annual interst on that is about 2.2 billion dollars or there about, if I've done my math correctly.  And Iraq is spending less than that on an annual basis for four critical areas so we're spending more on interest on the amount we've borrowed to rebuild their country than they are spending in total to rebuild their country on an annual basis?
Joseph Christoff: I'm from an accountability organization.  I'd have to take your numbers and go back and check them.
Tim Bishop: Okay.
Joseph Christoff: Before I could comment on them.
Tim Bishop: These are back of the envelope numbers, I acknowledge but they appear to be consistent with what you have reported. One last thing.  You and Ranking Member Ryan were engaged in a bit of a discussion about budget execution.
Joseph Christoff: Mmm-hmm.
Tim Bishop: To what extent do you believe that the decision to de-Baathify which deprived the Iraqi government of in effect a professional civil servant class, to what extent do you believe that decision has contributed to their inability to execute their budget plans?
Joseph Christoff: De-Baathi --  Were you going to interject?
That was said not to Rep Bishop who had the floor but to Republican Ranking Member Paul Ryan.
Paul Ryan: I just wanted to tack onto that because I think it's an excellent question.  Mr. Bishop, do you mind if I just tack onto the end of that question?
Tim Bishop: No, I would just like to --
Paul Ryan: It's a good question!  And the question is are any of these technocrats coming back now that the de-Baathifcation reforms have passed?  I'd like to know if you'd track that as well.
Joseph Christoff: Sure.  De-Baathifcation certainly was a factor in terms of the brain drain that has resulted in the lack of the kind of technocrats that Iraq needs for these ministry capacity -- for budgeting, procurement and contracting. Those type of Sunni technocrats are part of the over 2 million refugees in Syria and Jordan.  The extent to which they're coming back, it's a very small amount.  Ambassador Foley said two days ago that only about 16,000 of the 2 million refugees have actually returned to Iraq. I know I met some doctors when I was in Syria who wanted to return but they have no intentions of returning until they believe that the security situation is improved and they got a house.
Tim Bishop: One final question, you presided over the report that assessed performances on the benchmarks
Joseph Christoff: Yes, sir.
Tim Bishop: And one of those benchmarks was moving away from de-Baathification and restoring people to their jobs.
Joseph Christoff: Right.
Tim Bishop: In Mr. [Lawrence] Korb's [prepared] testimony [Korb would speak on the panel that followed], I don't know whether you've had the opportunity to see it, he makes the point that the current effort to address de-Baathification may well result in fewer Baath Party members working in the government under the new law than under the old law.  To what extent did you address that point in your assessment of the benchmark?
Joseph Christoff: Two parts in answering that question.  First of all, Iraq did pass a de-Baathification law which they passed in February.
Tim Bishop: The point of my question is what is the impact or ethicacy of that law?
Joseph Christoff: When we issued our progress report in June we had classified information that discussed that very issue that I could provide later for the record but I could not provide in an open session.
[. . .]
Governor Sarah Palin is McCain's running mate and the object of non-stop sexism.  Marie Cocco (Washington Post Writers Group) addresses some of it in her latest column:
This has a lot to do with a graphic image of Palin I just saw in which she is dressed in a black bustier, adorned with long, black gloves and wielding a whip. The image appeared in the Internet magazine Salon to illustrate a column titled: "The dominatrix," by Gary Kamiya. Kamiya calls Palin a "pinup queen," and says she not only tantalized the Republican National Convention with political red meat, but that her "babalicious" presence hypercharged the place with sexual energy, and naughty energy at that. "You could practically feel the crowd getting a collective woody as Palin bent Obama and the Democrats over, shoved a leather gag in their mouths and flogged them as un-American wimps, appeasers and losers."
That's some sexual mother lode. Dare I point out that I have never -- ever -- in three decades of covering politics seen a male politician's style, even one with an earthy demeanor, described this way?
Salon editor Joan Walsh says she agrees the "dominatrix" piece had a "provocative cover,'' and that her columnists enjoy great freedom. "One day Gary (Kamiya) called Palin a dominatrix, the next day Camille Paglia called her a feminist." The magazine exists, Walsh says, to "push the envelope."
No sooner did Walsh give me this explanation than another Salon contributor, Cintra Wilson, pushed that envelope again. Wilson described Palin as follows: an "f---able ... Christian Stepford wife in a 'sexy librarian' costume" who is, for ideological Republicans, a "hardcore pornographic centerfold spread." That is, when Palin is not coming across as one of those "cutthroat Texas cheerleader stage moms."
What is it about a woman candidate that sends the media into weird Freudian frenzies?

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