"We have an obligation . . . to put food and medicine in places so the Iraqi people can live a normal life," President Bush told the nation last week.
That's great. I just hope the Iraqis can get the medicine without having to join an HMO.
In his appropriation request to Congress, Bush asked for several billion dollars in humanitarian aid for what is now war-torn Iraq. The requests for future appropriations to rebuild Iraq when the shooting war is done have yet to come. Surely these are requests that Congress must honor: When we tear up a place, we have an obligation at absolute minimum to put it back in order.
And yet, this is an administration that is singularly ill-suited to the rebuilding of Iraq, because it is so stunningly indifferent to the rebuilding -- or even the maintenance -- of the United States. The administration has all but acknowledged that it has failed to rebuild Afghanistan, but it insists that Iraq will be different.
I doubt it. Except in matters of national security, this is the most resolutely anti-government administration since the rise of the New Deal. Ronald Reagan's pales alongside it. It has already enacted a $1 trillion-plus tax cut and now proposes to do it again, in wartime. If the president's advisers truly believe such a cut stimulates the economy (the first cut stimulated a net loss of roughly 2 million jobs), this is even more of a faith-based administration than it has let on. In fact, the chief goal of these cuts is to reduce government's capacity to meet public needs.
And that's just the beginning. The administration still would like to privatize Social Security, and it is promoting a Medicare "reform" that would force seniors into private HMOs in order to receive adequate prescription drug coverage. It has been utterly indifferent to the plight of state governments, which are everywhere cutting back on medical care, raising average school class sizes and increasing taxes to cope with the worst budgetary crisis in 60 years.
Yet at the same time that it is rolling back public services here in the United States, the White House means to roll them out in Iraq. It won't work. On this question, the Bush administration is a house divided against itself. It cannot be the social activist abroad and the social Darwinist at home. The American public will not long support the securing of a postwar Iraq while medicine, education and other social goods are increasingly rationed by the dollar in the States.
Indeed, it was only when this nation was at its most generous at home that it could afford to be at its most generous -- and strategically smart -- abroad. The Marshall Plan, which rebuilt the economies of Western Europe in the years after World War II, marked a commitment of U.S. resources that this nation never approached at any other time in its history. In the plan's first year, 1948-49, the United States devoted $5.3 billion to European reconstruction -- in a total budget of just $36 billion. That amounted to more than 2 percent of our gross national product. Today, our total foreign aid amounts to 0.1 percent of our gross domestic product.
How could the American people have committed so much of their wealth to the reconstruction of foreign lands? Anti-communism explained part of that commitment, but far from all of it. The truth is that Americans in the Roosevelt-Truman era were accustomed to, and supportive of, massive government efforts to promote the general welfare. From 1935 to 1941, for instance, Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration had employed 8 million Americans -- as many as 3.3 million at one time -- in public jobs. That came to 7 percent of the entire workforce. During World War II, the scope and legitimacy of government endeavor reached an all-time high.
Once upon a time, the neoconservative authors of the current war understood this link. Today it's these neos -- from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol -- who are most committed to a years-long project of rebuilding Iraq. Many of them got their start in politics three decades ago, working for Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Washington state Democrat who was a hard-line Cold War hawk and an avid supporter of such New Deal-type programs as universal health insurance. In the intervening decades, however, most of Jackson's onetime acolytes have repudiated the domestic half of his agenda. In 1993 Kristol wrote a famous memo urging the Republicans not to compromise with Bill Clinton on his universal health insurance plan but rather to kill it outright lest it breed a new generation of Americans who counted on the government for their well-being. The same Bill Kristol, of course, has been possibly the single most influential war hawk on Iraq and now counsels a commitment to the long-term reconstruction of that nation.
Scoop Jackson would have told him that you can't distribute medicine in Basra while making it unaffordable in Baltimore. Only a nation that feels secure at home will string a safety net abroad, which is why the economics of the Bush administration spell a grim future for both America and Iraq.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect.