Saturday, May 12, 2007

Smoke, But No Fire

With the Bush administration, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is a pretty reliable rule of thumb. So when I saw an executive order last Wednesday disbanding the State Dept's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) and replacing it with the Iraq Transitional Assistance Office (ITAO), a short week following the release of a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) audit critical of Iraq reconstruction efforts, it caught my eye. Throw in the fact that both the White House and a Republican Congressman have initiated oversight investigations of Stuart Bowen, the head of SIGIR, and you'll see why I titled a recent post, I Smell A Rat.

But in what might be a first for the Bush administration, the appearance of impropriety surrounding the executive order turns out to be a coincidence. IRMO, as a "temporary organisation", was limited by Federal statute to a period of three years. Since it was created by a National Security Presidential Directive on May 11, 2004, its mandate expired on May 10, 2007. Hence the Executive Order of May 9 creating the ITAO.

On the other hand, as for my initial question of whether the ITAO signals a phasing out of reconstruction aid, the answer is very clearly yes. Not only that, it's a phasing out that's been in the works since at least January 2006, when the Bush administration first announced its plan to wrap up major infrastructure reconstruction projects, shifting the emphasis instead to logistical training and institutional support for "Iraqi self-sufficiency".

In fact, since the initial $21 billion appropriated for Iraq reconstruction in 2003 (of which roughly $4 billion in outstanding contracts still remains), the amount of additional, non-security related reconstruction has been limited to roughly $1 billion, split between various funding streams, appropriated in 2006.

But even the idea that we heavily funded civilian and infrastructure reconstruction and are now ramping it down is misleading. Because a good deal of what's been called "reconstruction" has been diverted into security operations, ie. military infrastructure, force training, etc. Add to that the fact that the funding streams have been multiple and diverse, with various mandates and goals, and it becomes very difficult to keep things straight.

Which is where Stuart Bowen and SIGIR come in. Bowen is a longtime Bush loyalist, who served in the White House, and before that in various capacities on Bush's staff in Texas. Unlike other Bush loyalists, though, Bowen seems to have gotten the peculiar notion that he should actually do the job he was appointed to do. And wouldn't you know it, his audits on Iraq reconstruction have uncovered enormous lapses in oversight, poor procurement methods, and shoddy results.

Apparently that didn't go over too well, because last October, a hidden clause made its way into a military appropriations bill that would have ended SIGIR's mandate altogether come October 2007. Luckily, that clause was reversed just two months later, by a bill that tied its mandate to completion of a certain percentage of reconstruction contracts, effectively guaranteeing its existence through late 2008. But now Bowen finds himself the subject of two oversight investigations for misuse of funds, one by an executive branch ethics panel, and the other by the House Government Reform committee.

Compare that to the kind of support Alberto Gonzales still enjoys in the White House and you've got all you need to know about how the Bush administration operates. As he said himself, You're either with us or you're against us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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