Armed With History
It was on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, that Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton sent a letter to President Bush. "There is no doubt that our forces will be victorious in any conflict," he wrote. "But there is great potential," he warned, "for a ragged ending to a war as we deal with the aftermath." He noted that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld "frequently talks about the list he keeps of things that could go wrong in an Iraq war." Added Skelton: "I have kept my own list."
He went on to outline some possibilities that would prove eerily prescient: Shiites attacking Sunnis, forcing U.S. troops to protect them. "Stabilization and reconstruction prove more difficult than expected," Skelton wrote. "This puts pressure on troop rotations, reservists, their families ... and requires a dramatic increase in end-strength."
Nearly four years later, it is just such an increase in end-strength, meaning the overall size of the military, as well as the strain of repeated rotations on the Army and Marine Corps, that Skelton will confront as the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. In that role, this Democratic moderate figures to be a major player in examining America's wars on two fronts. As President Bush presses his case for sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq and details surface about wasted reconstruction aid (including Olympic-size swimming pools ordered up by Iraqi officials), Skelton summarizes the goals for his tenure with a word that has become his mantra: "Oversight. Oversight. Oversight."
No nonsense. That mantra is both a top item on his to-do list and a reminder of a lack of congressional supervision during critical phases of the Iraq war-and of the responsibility that Americans feel Capitol Hill should take up now. In a recent survey, nearly two thirds of Americans said that Congress has not been assertive enough in challenging the Bush administration's conduct of the war. "Oversight was nil," says Skelton. To that end, he has announced plans to revive the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, disbanded when Republicans gained House control in 1994. Skelton's committee will take up topics including military readiness. "This causes me great heartburn, this chewing away at our armed forces," Skelton tells U.S. News. "Equipment is worn to a nubbin," he adds, noting that while Congress provided the military with $17 billion last year to make up for equipment wear and tear, units in America "still don't have a lot to train on-it's left over there for succeeding brigades. And what's left over there is often worn out."
A member of the committee since 1981-and its ranking Democrat since 1998-Skelton, 75, still describes himself as a simple country lawyer. Colleagues caution, however, that the moniker belies a gentle but no-nonsense questioning style that will set the committee's tone in the months to come.
Stricken with polio as a child, Skelton was unable to serve in combat but developed a voracious appetite for history books that he shares, he says, with military leaders. "That's my hobby. Some people bowl, some ski-I read history books." For that reason, says Robert Scales, the former president of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., "the strongest thing you can do when you talk with Ike is to come armed with those historical connections. He understands that for the military, the battlefield is our lab, our law library, our courtroom, our stock exchange. Soldiers do war so infrequently that if you're going to gain knowledge, you've got to go to the historical lab."