Golden Fleece II? 

Where is Senator William Proxmire when we need him?

The over-40s among our readers will recall the "Golden Fleece Awards" once handed out by William Proxmire, the former Wisconsin senator best remembered for having conducted a decades-long, one-man crusade against government waste, particularly in the military.

Proxmire, remember, would regularly publish lists of government funding foul-ups.He enjoyed railing against the Defense Department for its expenditures on such items as $5 nuts, $50 bolts, $500 screwdrivers, and $5,000 toilet seats.

Perhaps President Bush should bring Proxmire, now 87, out of retirement and ask him to scrutinize the nuts and bolts of his administration's whopping $87 billion budgetary request for funds to "reconstruct" Iraq.For surely, this request deserves Golden-Fleece-level scrutiny.

I could go on and on about how the Bush administration's decision to launch a preemptive war against Iraq was singularly boneheaded.But that will get us nowhere.Neither will our wishing and hoping that other developed nations bail us out with troops and/or money. For better or worse, the rest of the world views Americans in this instance as bulls in a china shop.We were the ones who went charging into Iraq.We broke the vase. Now we own it.

That vase comes with an $87 billion price tag, $66 billion of which is earmarked for the Pentagon.What details we know so far must be giving Proxmire the willies.Wonder what the retired senator thinks, for example, of the $4 million we're investing in developing telephone area codes in Iraq or of the $19 million we supposedly need to establish wireless Internet service?And what would he say about the $100 million we've set aside for a couple of thousand sanitation trucks?

Back in April, The Financial Times reported that our all-conquering army was purchasing diesel fuel for its tanks (from American-owned private companies, of course) at roughly $150 a gallon.Hopefully, the Defense Department can cut a better deal this time around, since the administration, in its budget, is setting aside $900 million -- we're not making this up -- for the importation of petroleum products into Iraq.

Frankly, we're surprised that little nuggets like this haven't sent Proxmire, despite his years, out screaming into the street.And we're even more amazed that all Americans aren't asking the same kinds of questions about the Iraq budget so far being asked only by a handful of enterprising reporters.

Just last week, on a Baghdad Web site, an Iraqi engineer noted that he and his colleagues had estimated the reconstruction cost of a damaged bridge in his neighborhood at $120,000, only to find out that Bechtel, the American contractor, had already put a price tag on the project: $1.4 million!Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but given its track record and its cozy relationship with so many of the reconstruction corporate players, how can one not view Bush administration requests for funding with anything but extreme skepticism?

And as for the $66 billion earmarked for the Pentagon, how can Congress possibly approve this funding without insisting upon leadership change at the Department of Defense?By foolishly antagonizing potential allies, by grossly underestimating his troop needs in "liberated" Iraq, and by allowing the near-complete destruction of that country's infrastructure in the aftermath of our April "victory," Donald Rumsfeld has already shown himself to be historically inept.The idea of giving him responsibility for distributing $66 billion of taxpayer funds in Iraq is ludicrous.

Only after President Bush has given Rumsfeld his walking papers should Congress even begin to consider the administration's Iraq budget.And only after that budget is gone over with the equivalent of William Proxmire's fine-toothed comb should its approval even be contemplated by the House or the Senate.

Kenneth Neill is CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., parent company of The Memphis Flyer.



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