WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders faced a bipartisan barrage of skeptical questions Wednesday from lawmakers over President Barack Obama’s request for $58.6 billion in emergency funds for conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and beyond.
Republican and Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee said Americans are war-weary after almost 13 years of conflict in South Asia and the Middle East, fearful of being drawn into new wars and mistrustful of the Obama administration.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he opposed giving Afghanistan tens of billions in new money because so much U.S. aid over the last decade has been lost to corruption.
“I look at the absolute waste of life first and money second, and here you are asking for more money,” Jones told Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and other senior Pentagon officials. “American taxpayers are absolutely frustrated and broke because of these overseas activities. I do not understand how you can sit here today and ask for this money with such waste, fraud and abuse going on across Afghanistan.”
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who lost both legs in November 2004 during combat in Iraq, criticized the funding proposal, called the Overseas Contingency Operations request, for coming just months after the Pentagon’s basic budget package and for having too few spending controls.
“It seems like this has become just another slush fund where you can just transfer money between accounts,” Duckworth said.
Work, a former Marine Corps colonel, rejected that portrayal.
“We do not believe it is a slush fund that will allow us to just go willy-nilly,” Work said. “We think there are all sorts of checks and balances.”
After the United States launched wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush began using supplemental budget requests to fund them in the Overseas Contingency Operations packages, which critics said was done to mask the overall escalation in Pentagon spending.
The debate Wednesday again revealed a split among Republicans over how long the “war on terror” that Bush proclaimed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks should continue, and at what cost.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said one of his four sons just returned home after serving in Afghanistan.
“The American people believe the war is ending,” Wilson said. “I believe we’re in a long war on terrorism.”
Islamic radicals now fighting for land and power in Iraq, Syria, North Africa and elsewhere, Wilson said, “are still trying to accomplish their goals of ‘death to America, death to Israel.’ “
Work noted that Obama’s current emergency request for 2015 is $26.7 billion less than Congress approved for this year and $159 billion less than the enacted amount for 2011, when U.S. combat operations in Iraq ended.
“The request reflects a continued downward trajectory of war-related spending as we conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan after 13 years of war,” he said.
Beyond questioning the administration’s anti-terrorism initiatives, some lawmakers asked why it is also seeking almost $1 billion for a European Reassurance Initiative in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“We are part of NATO, where we are pledged to defend each other when attacked,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. “So why does Europe need to be reassured with money?”
Even some Obama allies on the committee said the president needs to do a better job of explaining to Congress and to the public why the extra money for the overseas missions is needed, especially his controversial request for $500 million to train moderate Syrian rebels.
“You need to do better than (saying), ‘It’s classified, so we really can’t talk about it,’ “ said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the armed services panel’s senior Democrat. “For the United States Congress to vote to train and equip rebel forces is a big damn deal. This is more for the White House (than the Pentagon), but sell it, because if you don’t, we can’t pass it.”
Duckworth said she would be worried about the fate of U.S.-supplied weapons to Syria.
“I’m very concerned that we maintain oversight to make sure that any armaments we transfer to moderate rebels don’t end up in the hands of terrorists,” Duckworth said.
Beyond repeating Obama’s past explanations that the money would be used to train and equip “vetted” opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and to provide them intelligence and military advice, Work and Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they could provide details of the plan only in closed session.
“Everything that’s happening in Syria and Iraq has been the focus of intense discussion and debate within the administration,” Winnefeld said.
He said the Syrian rebels would be trained in another country.
“We are still working through what are some fairly challenging legal issues, some fairly challenging partner issues,” Winnefeld said.
Asked whether the purpose of helping Syrian rebels is to help them defeat Assad or to defeat Islamist extremists threatening to dominate the opposition, Work responded, “Both.”
Undersecretary of Defense Michael McCord, the Pentagon comptroller, said the emergency funding request doesn’t include money for hundreds of U.S. military advisers Obama has dispatched to Iraq in recent weeks, who are being paid from existing Pentagon coffers.
The radical militants who call themselves the Islamic State have declared a caliphate stretching across the two countries. The fighters have seized cities and territory north and west of Baghdad and are threatening the Iraqi capital.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the United States would be embroiled in the Syrian civil war if Congress last year hadn’t rejected Obama’s bid for airstrikes to topple Assad. He said the whole Middle East region is in chaos, despite the American blood and money lost there.
“We have spent billions, if not trillions, and look at what’s happening in Iraq now,” Scott said.