Cordesman listed a dozen ways that the United States could lose the ongoing war for Iraq. One of them was "a failure to maintain CERP funds to allow effective civil-military aid and engagement programs."
One official in Iraq says there is some discussion of refurbishing CERP's coffers with some of the congressional money, but even if this happens, it will be very hard—and Bremer seems disinclined—to give the commanders so much freedom to decide how to spend taxpayers' dollars.
There is one possible way out to keep the fund—and its vital on-the-ground discretion—going. Buried inside President Bush's $87 billion defense supplemental bill, which Congress passed last month for military operations and economic assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a $9.3 billion "transfer fund" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can move around from one program to another at his discretion. Much of this discretion applies only to money for combat supplies or construction projects. However, one clause of the bill reads:
Upon the determination that such action is necessary in the national interest, the Secretary of Defense may transfer between appropriations up to $5 billion the funds made available in this title.
Elsewhere, the bill notes that the president may transfer "any appropriation made available in the title," as long as the amount does not exceed $200 million.
Two months ago, before Congress passed the bill, I denounced these hidden clauses as "Rumsfeld's slush fund," noting that the secretary could invoke them to extend and enlarge the already-lavish no-bid contracts for Halliburton, Bechtel, and the like.
This critique still holds. Congress didn't delete or alter the "transfer fund" clauses. But Rumsfeld and Bush have an opportunity for budgetary redemption. Transfer some of that money to CERP. Instruct Bremer to give a wink and a nudge to the commanders who used the first stash wisely.
Might such discretion create the potential for corruption? Yes. But no reports of abuse surfaced during the first round. And if some miscreant officer does skim a few bucks off the top, the loss would be trivial compared with the price-gouging that Pentagon-approved contractors have routinely practiced in the course of rebuilding Iraq.
So dip into the slush fund now. Time is running out.