Where's Harry Truman?

Top generals John P. Abizaid, the head of military operations in Iraq, and Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are strongly suggesting that Iraq may be sinking from a state of violent sectarian unrest into a true civil war.

But if that weren’t bad enough, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, now estimates that corruption costs in Iraq have reached a startling $4 billion per year. This is vital taxpayer war money — money you’d think would be safeguarded by the GOP Congress. But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

A Wall Street Journal story on the subject states that "the Bush administration continues to wind down its ambitious Iraq reconstruction program, which has spent tens of billions of dollars on rebuilding efforts that have largely failed to restore basic services such as water or electricity to pre-war levels."

And why has this spending failed?

Sen. Susan Collins (R.-Maine) chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that overseas the war money, says this is a story of "mistakes made, plans poorly conceived or overwhelmed by ongoing violence, and of waste, greed and corruption that drained dollars that should have been used to build schools, improve the electrical grid and repair the oil infrastructure."

True enough, corruption is a big part of this problem, in particular the oil smuggling that continues to siphon off what could be precious oil revenues for Iraq. U.S. Comptroller General David Walker says 10 percent of Iraq’s refined fuels and 30 percent of its imported fuels are being stolen.

But Bowen says this is a problem that began at home: "[T]he Bush administration’s overall handling of Iraq contracting — from relying on no-bid contracts even when major fighting had ended, to failing to standardize contracting regulations to help prevent fraud — was deeply flawed." He goes on to say that the U.S. has not provided the proper contracting and procurement support necessary to manage reconstruction efforts that were begun three years ago, and also cites widespread mismanagement among competing U.S. government agencies.

The Bush administration will take its share of the heat for the widening corruption problems endemic to the Iraq War. But the Republican Congress, which hardly needs another nail in its election-year coffin, appears not to be properly exercising its oversight authority when it comes to war spending.

Poll after poll shows that American voters are not happy about Iraq for any number of reasons, with most of the anti-war media focusing its commentary on the White House and Pentagon. But Congress plays a key role in this war through its oversight functions, and if more stories like this circulate in the media, Congress will be blamed.

What we sorely need now is a Harry Truman.

When Truman was an unknown senator from Missouri during WWII, he chaired hearings that rooted out corruption in various war-related contracts among defense suppliers. In doing so, he made a real name for himself as a corruption fighter, prompting FDR to put him on the presidential ticket in 1944.

Truman’s panel was called the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, but from the start it was known as the "Truman Committee," according to historian David McCullough. The senator held numerous hearings in Washington, and traveled all over the country gathering facts and figures on the building of ships, warplanes and various plants. He investigated giant corporations, small businesses and unions, turning up all manner of bad planning, sloppy administration, poor workmanship, and cheating by labor and management.

For Truman, this was all part of being a pro-war patriot, and by 1943 his committee had produced 21 separate reports. McCullough points out, "unquestionably, [Truman’s] relentless watchdog role . . . greatly increased public confidence in how the war was being run."

Public confidence? With public confidence in the Iraq War plummeting today, I can only ask, "Where is today’s Harry Truman?"

I say all this as a war hawk and a war supporter. I want to win this war. I do not want to cut and run. I agree with President Bush’s basic mission of spreading democracy and freedom to the Middle East.

But after three democratic elections in Iraq, a wondrous advance for democracy, it still does not seem that we are winning this war. And if we are not winning it, then one has to worry about the possibility that we may lose it. And that would be a very bad thing.


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