War Costs Money. Why Can't Politicians Say So?

By Robert D. Hormats
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Last week, President Bush and the Democratic Congress had a showdown over Iraq war funding. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one.

Lost amid the week's political struggles was this blunt reality: America's political leaders have been reluctant to confront the public with the need to make financial sacrifices to pay for the conflict and for the ongoing struggle against al-Qaeda. And that could spell disaster later on.

It wasn't always this way. After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt minced no words with the American people. "War costs money," he said. "That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other non-essentials." If only today's leaders would say something similar.

Instead, Bush and Congress have played down the expense of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than forthrightly asking the public to shoulder new post-9/11 burdens, the administration has skirted the normal budget process, relying on supplemental appropriations. Not only were no additional taxes imposed to cover extra security costs, but the country was treated to an additional tax cut in 2003.

The Iraq war's supporters may have initially figured that the conflict would be short and cheap, making paying for it relatively painless. Later, they may have calculated that relying on emergency funding would make it easier to sustain the public's support -- an approach that assumes that most Americans are afraid of wartime economic sacrifice.

In fact, leveling with the American people early on would have been far wiser, especially as war costs have skyrocketed. (According to the Congressional Budget Office, the government has allocated about $503 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan and counterterrorism since September 2001.) After 9/11, many Americans would have supported cuts in nonessential domestic programs to make room for additional spending on homeland security or the battle against terrorism. And large numbers of taxpayers probably would have been willing to check off a box on their 2003 tax returns to pay a few extra dollars to ensure proper body armor and well-protected vehicles for our troops in Iraq, high-quality health care for returning veterans and financial support for families back home.

Earlier presidents directly and candidly asked the public to support extraordinary amounts of war funding. That generally meant new taxes, war-bond drives and cuts in spending on civilian programs. But such honesty did more than mobilize money; it also mobilized the home front and made it feel engaged in the cause.

During the Civil War, for instance, Abraham Lincoln urged "every person of small means" to buy war bonds to tie large numbers of citizens to the Union Army's cause. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson told Congress that Americans "know that the war must be paid for and that it is they who must pay for it." Wilson's Treasury secretary, William G. McAdoo, said: "A man who could not serve in the trenches of France might nonetheless serve in the financial trenches at home." He insisted that "any great war must necessarily be a popular movement."

It's probably too late to use earlier leaders' wisdom to salvage support for the unpopular Iraq war. But these history lessons could still help buttress support for the broader conflict in which the country is now engaged, a global fight against radical Islamic terrorism that will need serious, sustained funding.

For years, Osama bin Laden has been blunt about his plans to kill large numbers of Americans and severely damage the U.S. economy; surely our leaders should be drawing up far-sighted plans to pay for a resolute effort to thwart him and his ilk. The nation must face up to the long-term costs of preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks and responding decisively should they occur. But our leaders haven't fully spelled out these costs to the public, let alone discussed the need to change spending and tax priorities to meet them. What's more, the absence of another domestic attack -- so far -- is lulling many Americans into questioning the need for substantial homeland-security spending, particularly as the graying baby-boom generation confronts us with dramatically higher Social Security and Medicare payments.

We are living in a post-9/11 world with a

pre-9/11 fiscal policy. Without a national dialogue on how to pay our future security bill, we have no plan to replace the hardware used up or destroyed in Iraq, finance the next generation of sophisticated weaponry, care for our wounded veterans, equip our firefighters and police to respond to terrorist attacks, or strengthen our ailing intelligence system. Nor have we seen a plan to maintain the sound underlying fiscal conditions essential to our economic and military strength. Instead, we're staring at the virtual certainty of skyrocketing deficits in the next decade -- largely because of growing entitlements.

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