Senators from both parties assailed two senior Bush administration officials on Tuesday for failing to give even rough projections on the length, cost and troop levels for the postwar effort in Iraq.
In a contentious hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President George W. Bush's budget director, Joshua Bolten, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, said it was difficult, if not impossible, to make those forecasts, given the fluid security situation on the ground and the administration's efforts to recruit international forces to help replace US troops.
The Pentagon says it is costing US$3.9 billion a month to keep nearly 150,000 US troops in Iraq, but the officials refused to say what the costs and what troop levels might be needed in the future, or what reconstruction costs might be.
Bolten said the total reconstruction costs this year would be US$7.3 billion.
Democrats in particular, along with Republicans, scolded the two officials, warning them that public support hinged on candid administration estimates of future costs, even if they were rough figures. Some senators even suggested the vagueness masked a postwar plan adrift.
"Because of some combination of bureaucratic inertia, political caution and unrealistic expectations left over from before the war, we do not appear to be confident about our course in Iraq," Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican, who is chairman of the foreign relations committee, said in a statement.
Other Republicans were equally blunt. "I think you, Mr. Bolten, should be more forthright in terms of what the costs are going to be so that we have some idea, and the American people, how long, how much," said Senator George Voinovich, a Republican.
Several lawmakers accused Wolfowitz, an architect of the administration's Iraq policy who just returned from a five-day trip there, of sugar-coating the problems of stabilizing the country and of dwelling on what the administration has called Iraq's role in global terrorism, to the exclusion of other threats.
Senator Lincoln Chafee, a Republican, accused Wolfowitz of "shifting the justification of what we're doing" in Iraq from weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein's tyrannical three-decade rule.
But the testiest exchanges came among Senator Joseph Biden Jr, the panel's ranking Democrat, and Bolten and Wolfowitz.
Biden asked if the government expected to spend US$4 billion a month on the troops into next year.
"We don't have any reason to expect a dramatic change in that number, but I wouldn't want to predict beyond the next couple of months, because the situation is so variable," Bolten said.
But Biden said lawmakers would soon vote on a fiscal 2004 budget, and he insisted that Bolten be more precise.
"What the devil are you going to ask us for?" Biden demanded.
Bolten acknowledged that the Bush administration could not accurately estimate the costs of troops or reconstruction, "simply because we don't know what they will be."
At which point, Biden exclaimed, "Oh, come on now! Does anybody here at the table think we're going to be down below 100,000 forces in the next calendar year?" He added, "When are you guys starting to be honest with us?"