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THOMAS OLIPHANT

A blank check for Iraq?

WASHINGTON

THE REAL Iraq issue before a clearly grumpy Senate this week is whether the check is going to come with checks.

A giant, unilateral commitment to Iraq's occupation and reconstruction is either going to be made open-ended or regulated, unrestricted or conditioned, unexamined or monitored.

Rather than face squarely the avoidable mess that overshadows halting, fragile progress, President Bush has chosen the classic Washington policy dodge -- he has formed a new committee.

And rather than face squarely the challenge of meeting Congress's responsibilities, most suggestions from Capitol Hill have focused on funding mechanisms (loans versus grants) and rhetorical links to shortchanged domestic needs (Iraq's infrastructure versus America's).

The one exception has little chance of passage, but an excellent chance of putting senators on record for or against the above alternatives. It has only Democratic sponsors -- Senators Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- but it incorporates many of the policy views of several Republicans who still prefer the political safety of words alone.

It has a precedent -- the modulated, phased commitment of American treasure to the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II called the Marshall Plan. Two generations ago, Harry Truman didn't flinch at the prospect of showing Congress and previously isolationist Republicans that the reconstruction effort was achieving its grand goals and saw that agreeing to fund it in carefully monitored stages was a means of expanding support.

Today, Bush views anything less than rubber-stamp "yes" votes as bordering on the unpatriotic. What history teaches is that presidents who reject oversight really fear it.

Like most political leaders, Kennedy, Byrd, and Leahy have not questioned the $67 billion and change in Bush's request that is basically for military needs in Iraq and to a tiny extent in Afghanistan. Also like others, they have focused on the roughly $20 billion for the latest installment of the beleaguered reconstruction effort.

Following the Marshall Plan precedent, they are proposing that instead of providing all the money up front with no oversight and no strings, that Congress provide roughly half the money now but have to vote again in six months after reviewing the results.

The proposal would provide slightly more than $5 billion for helping build a new Iraqi military and security force, and another $5 billion for the reconstruction effort.

After next April and a second congressional vote, the fund for the country's security needs would not be subject to limitation.

However, to spend more money for the reconstruction of the country, Bush would have to certify that two important developments have happened, both of which the president has said he desires in principle.

The first is that the United Nations actually adopts a fresh resolution that sets up a truly multinational military force in Iraq under the leadership of the United States. To date, Bush has confined his efforts to a few attempts at literally bribing governments (notably Turkey) to dispatch relatively small numbers of troops.

The second is that Bush present a real plan, as in elaborate details, for the reconstruction of Iraq and its guidance toward democratic government that includes a "significant" commitment of financial assistance from other countries. To date, Bush has asked Congress for a $20 billion-plus commitment for this year based on a 28-page document that barely merits the term outline. He is sending his diplomats to a "donors conference" this month with hats in hand, not any offer of partnership.

The Kennedy-Byrd-Leahy proposal would also give Congress a chance to correct in spirit the huge mistake it made a year ago -- voting only once, too soon, to authorize the use of force without having a second opportunity on the eve of actual conflict to authorize it specifically.

The first vote authorized the use of force, but it broadened Bush's base of support by bringing in Democrats who insisted that the president go to the UN for a new resolution amounting to an ultimatum. Once that resolution was unanimously adopted and Iraq flouted its terms, a truly representative democracy -- like our allies in Britain and like Bush's father before the first Gulf War -- would have had a second debate and vote on the eve of conflict.

To repeat that abdication with regard to the reconstruction effort would be to compound the initial mistake -- regardless of one's views about the wisdom of last March's invasion.

The alternative does not prevent Bush from asking for or Congress from approving more money later -- a virtual certainty. It does not assume that efforts to arrange a genuinely multi-lateral effort in Iraq will succeed. But as with the Marshall Plan, it sets up toll gates through which this enormous commitment will have to pass.

The fair choice this week is not between a blank check and no check. It is between open-ended commitment of American lives and treasure and a calibrated commitment that is required to demonstrate its success.

This is one roll call vote that will be worth saving because too many senators want to duck the responsibility it requires they accept.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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