Senate Committee Scrutinizes Pentagon Budget Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace face tough questioning before a Senate committee as they try to sell the latest Pentagon budget.
NPR logo Senate Committee Scrutinizes Pentagon Budget

Senate Committee Scrutinizes Pentagon Budget

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace faced a day of tough questioning Wednesday before a Senate committee as they tried to sell the latest Pentagon budget to a skeptical audience.

Gates, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, made an analogy symbolizing the complexity of funding the Iraq war, comparing the situation to "10,000 faucets all running money."

"Some of them run at one rate, some of them run at another, and they all draw on one big pool of money behind them," Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). "Turning them on and off with precision and on a day-to-day basis, or even a month-to-month basis, gets very difficult."

The Bush administration, which has requested $90 billion to fund the war through September, has been under increasing pressure to show a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Last week, the president vetoed $124.2 billion legislation that would have funded the war while requiring troops to start coming home this fall. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow reiterated that the president would veto any such bill that crossed his desk in the future.

Congress wants the White House to show progress on a series of benchmarks that show the way for withdrawal of some 150,000 troops in Iraq. Specifically, Congress would like to see a roadmap of economic, political and security milestones that point the way toward an exit strategy.

Gates said the Pentagon isn't set up to deal for the temporary funding measures proposed by Congressional Democrats for the Iraq war, adding that the Defense Department isn't agile enough to manage a "two-month appropriation" linked to progress on the benchmarks.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) raised specific concerns about the drawdown in personnel and equipment in the state National Guards. Many states, such as Maryland, face potentially critical shortfalls that would prevent them from responding effectively to disasters on home soil, she said.

"The Maryland National Guard faces serious equipment shortfalls, and in the event of a natural disaster or an attack in the National Capital Region, they (do not) … feel that they would have the operational capability to respond (effectively)," Mikulski said.

National Guard readiness nationwide stood at about 56 percent, Gates said in response to questioning. He said about $22 billion had been budgeted for the National Guard from next fiscal year until 2013.

Pace told the subcommittee that the Pentagon was committed to restoring readiness to the historical average of about 70 percent, and he rebuffed concerns that the leadership in the states' National Guard units was feeding him an unrealistically rosy picture of troop and material readiness.

"The decisions have been made, collectively, to get it up to 76 percent," the Marine general said. "But the leadership in the Guard has been very forthcoming with what their deficiencies are. They have it laid out very specifically."

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Iraq meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Underscoring the security concerns facing Iraq, a suicide bomber killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 80 in Kurdistan in the country's north. An explosion also rocked the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, where Cheney was visiting.

Benchmarks Key to Iraq Deal, But What Are They?

An Iraqi soldier mans a checkpoint in the restive Baghdad neighborhood of Yarmuk, May 7, 2007. Security milestones are among the benchmarks under discussion for Iraq. Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images

As the debate over the war in Iraq heats up, one word you're likely to hear often is benchmarks. They are key to overcoming the impasse between President Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress. But the term is confusing and means different things to different people. Here, a guide for the benchmark-perplexed.

What is a benchmark?

A benchmark is any milestone that the Iraqi government must meet in a given amount of time. The White House and Congress have yet to hammer out specifics, but broadly speaking, everyone agrees on the kinds of milestones they want to see the Iraqi government meet:

  • Economic milestones, such as passing a law that equitably divides Iraq's oil wealth.
  • Political milestones, such as allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to jobs they lost when the party was banned from government, the armed forces, state-owned companies, universities and high schools.
  • Security milestones, such as disbanding Shiite militia.

Is the notion of benchmarks a new idea, one specific to Iraq?

No. The United States often ties foreign aid to criteria that other governments must meet. This ranges from meeting certain financial targets, to cracking down on drug traffickers, to improving performance on human rights.

So why are Iraqi benchmarks so contentious?

Because the stakes are so high. At issue is not only money — U.S. aid — but also the fate of some 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Who first proposed benchmarks for Iraq?

The Iraq Study Group was among the first to suggest that the United States hold the Iraqi government accountable for progress. Last December, it said in its report:

"The United States should work closely with Iraq's leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives—or milestones—on national reconciliation, security, and governance. Miracles cannot be expected, but the people of Iraq have the right to expect action and progress."

Are there any drawbacks to setting deadlines for the Iraqi government?

Possibly. The Iraqi government doesn't want to be seen as taking orders from Washington. That will further weaken it in the eyes of the Iraqi people. And, as the Bush administration argues, hard-and-fast benchmarks might tie the hands of the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made that point on CBS's Face The Nation on April 29.

"To say 'we must do this if they don't do that' doesn't allow us the flexibility and creativity that we need to move this forward," Rice said.

Many analysts, however, believe that the benefits of benchmarks outweigh the drawbacks. The Iraqi government, they say, must know what is expected of it.

Is the Iraqi government capable of meeting the benchmarks?

In the short run, probably not. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak and divided. Some analysts also question the resolve of Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. For instance, the Iraqi parliament, which has a backlog of crucial legislation pending, plans to take a two-month recess this summer.

Who will determine whether the Iraqi government has met the benchmarks?

That's not yet clear. The White House would like President Bush to make the determination. Some congressional Republicans have suggested that Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, make the call. Others say an impartial body, such as the General Accountability Office, should be the judge. In any event, choosing the "referee" is important because many of the benchmarks are fuzzy and open to interpretation.

How long does the Iraqi government have to meet the benchmarks?

That depends on whom you ask. Some proposals call for President Bush to certify every 30 days that the Iraqi government is "fully cooperating" with U.S. efforts toward the benchmarks. Others allow for as long as four months between reports.

What happens if the Iraqi government fails to meet the benchmarks?

Good question. That's the pivotal issue, and it's the one that is being debated most fiercely now on Capitol Hill. Some congressional Democrats want the United States to begin withdrawing troops should the Iraqi government fail to meet the benchmarks. The White House is adamantly opposed to that. A possible compromise solution is for the United States to withhold about $5 billion in non-military aid from Iraq. That would give the benchmarks some teeth, but not so much that President Bush objects.

Some analysts, however, question whether withholding funds will really make a difference to the United States now.

"In order to spend serious money, you need serious institutions," says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Iraqi government doesn't have serious institutions, Alterman says, so withholding the funds is not likely to have much impact.