President George W. Bush signed a $696 billion
Pentagon spending bill immediately before his State of the Union address Monday
night, which funds all Defense Department programs not directly tied to the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expands health care for injured veterans, and
gives U.S. soldiers a pay raise.
The bill is a mixed bag for peace activists, since Bush added a so-called "signing
statement" saying he would ignore provisions that ban permanent military
bases in Iraq and forbid the use of U.S. troops to exercise United States control
of Iraq's oil resources.
Congress tucked many contentious policies into the spending bill, knowing President
Bush would have to sign it to keep the military from grinding to a halt. Among
them is a Wounded Warrior bill designed to improve the quality of medical care
for U.S. veterans.
Washington's answer to the scandal surrounding poor care at the Walter Reed
Army Medical Center, it was championed by politicians and presidential hopefuls
across the political spectrum from Democrat Barack Obama to Republican John
"This is a tremendous victory for veterans, so that we do not leave any
more behind to fall through the cracks," said Paul Sullivan, director of
the group Veterans for Common Sense.
The Pentagon reports more than 68,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded, injured,
or stricken ill in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Department of Veterans
Affairs (VA) hospitals and clinics have treated over 260,000 patients from the
Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
On top of that, the VA has reported nearly 250,000 disability claims from veterans
of the two wars. Studies show as many as half of the 1.6 million soldiers sent
to fight in Iraq will return with post-traumatic stress disorder and a fifth
are returning with traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage often caused
by roadside bombs.
Sullivan says the most important aspect of the legislation President Bush signed
Monday is a provision guaranteeing every veteran free VA health care for five
years after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Right now, veterans only receive two years of free health care from the
Department of Veterans Affairs, and due to the long delays at the VA, those
two years often expire before the veteran can receive treatment from a doctor,"
he told IPS.
"In some cases, when a veteran has traumatic brain injury or a psychological
condition related to the war, it may be six months or two or even three years
until the condition gets serious enough for the veteran to even want to go to
the VA for health care. Now, with this five years of free health care from the
VA, our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans can rest a little more assured that
when they show up at the VA they will be treated right away with high quality
VA doctors," he said.
President Bush didn't approve the entire bill, though he used a signing
statement to say he wouldn't follow four provisions of the act, which he said
"could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional
obligations." Those provisions would have mandated increased congressional
oversight of military contractors, banned construction of permanent military
bases in Iraq and forbade the use of U.S. troops to exercise United States control
of Iraq's oil resources.
Antonia Juhasz of the group Oil Change International told IPS the issues of
oil and permanent military bases are related.
"We've got the Bush administration pushing aggressively for an [Iraqi]
law that would give oil companies 20- to 25-year contracts for oil in Iraq and
if they were to be at work for an extended length of time, they would need security,"
"If the U.S. military is going to stay in Iraq for 20 or 35 years, they're
going to need bases," she added.
Juhasz said President Bush's signing statements show the futility of the Democrats'
main approach to the war issue which is to continue approving funds for
the war while simultaneously trying to extract concessions from the administration.
A Congressional Budget Office report released last week showed the Democratic
Congress appropriated more money for the Iraq war in 2007 than Republican Congresses
did in years past.
"The bottom line has to be in the willingness to give the money,"
she said. "The budget for the war this year has reached $170 billion for
just the next year. That is an astounding amount of money. The increase in spending
on the war is largely caused by the surge, and of course the power of the purse
is the only power that the Democrats have."
Some observers are looking forward to January 2009, when George Bush's eight
years in office will come to an end. But James Paul of the Global Policy Forum
says there's plenty the Democrats can do this year to slow or stop the conflict.
"If this is something that counts, then surely they have a pretty strong
mandate," he said.
"I suspect there are problems that will go beyond January 2009 and this
issue is not going to go away any time soon even if George Bush is out
of office," he added.
(Inter Press Service)