The only thing that costs too much is the Afghanistan war

The Post reports:

Of all the statistics that President Obama’s national security team will consider when it debates the size of forthcoming troop reductions in Afghanistan, the most influential number probably will not be how many insurgents have been killed or the amount of territory wrested from the Taliban, according to aides to those who will participate.

It will be the cost of the war.

The crew that has run up discretionary domestic spending by 24 percent and is willing to throw $50 billion at a light rail system the country does not need or want is all about saving money:

The U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next. To many of the president’s civilian advisers, that price is too high, given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending. Growing doubts about the need for such a broad nation-building mission in Afghanistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death have only sharpened that view.

“Where we’re at right now is simply not sustainable,” said one senior administration official, who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal policy deliberations.

Civilian advisers, who do not want to be seen as unwilling to pay for the war, are expected to frame their cost concerns in questions about the breadth of U.S. operations — arguing that the troop surge Obama authorized in 2009 has achieved many of its goals — instead of directly tackling money matters. When, in the next few weeks, the president’s war cabinet evaluates troop-withdrawal optionspresented by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander, “it’s not like each of them will have price tags next to them,” the official said. But “it’s certainly going to shape how most of the civilians look at this.”

Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative e-mails me: “The war in Afghanistan is not the cause of our current fiscal woes. Runaway domestic spending and an unwillingness on the part of the President to seriously tackle entitlement reform are. It is thus shameful that this administration is making cost an overriding factor in its decision-making about Afghanistan. What price can be put on the security of Americans here at home if Afghanistan unravels and all the progress achieved in recent years is lost?”

Indeed, if one looks at just a fraction of the new domestic spending Obama proposed in his budget it becomes apparent that this administration has no qualms about spending money for all sorts of endeavors:

$50 billion — Amount the administration plans to spend this year on infrastructure and transportation “investments.”

$30 billion — Amount dedicated to a “National Infrastructure Bank to invest in projects of regional or national significance to the economy,” including the much-touted high-speed rail initiative.

$77.4 billion — Funding allocated for the Department of Education, a 22 percent increase from 2010 levels and a 35 percent increase from 2008 levels.

$29.5 billion — Total spending on the Department of Energy, a 22 percent increase from 2008 levels.

$9.9 billion — Funding allocated for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a 30 percent increase from 2008 levels.

$150 billion — Total amount the White House plans to spend next year on research and development programs.

Understand what is going on here: Embarrassed by their own motives — slash defense to pay for runaway domestic spending — the civilians are now concocting excuses to justify their approach. It is hard to imagine any other administration proclaiming: “Money is the new 800-pound gorilla. . . . It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.” And when you view it this way, you realize this gang has decided it is too expensive to kill our enemies given the fact there are so many domestic baubles they’d prefer to buy (or rather, borrow to buy).

This approach reflects the president’s frequent propensity to view national security (e.g., the July 2011 drawdown of forces) through the lens of domestic politics. Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute tells me, “This is what you get when you have a president who rarely speaks about, little alone defends, the war.” The tragedy here, as Schmitt explains, is that Obama, if he were to follow this advice would undercut his own success. He tells me: “What’s especially discouraging is the fact that it’s clear that ‘the surge’ has had a significant impact on the ground in Afghanistan. But instead of building on that progress, the drones in the administration want to use that success as cover to bail.”

Not surprisingly, the military objects to the civilians’ methodology for evaluating war spending:

Military leaders maintain that the 30,000-troop surge and an increase in civilian reconstruction efforts have resulted in a dramatic turnaround of what had been a foundering war, creating the possibility of a reasonably stable nation.

They insist that a rapid withdrawal of forces would make that goal unachievable by rolling back territorial gains against the Taliban and jeopardizing efforts to develop Afghan security forces and build government institutions. U.S. military officers also contend that the aim of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban — an outcome espoused by the White House and the State Department but not as vigorously embraced by top commanders — would be at risk if there were fewer troops to pressure the insurgents.

“We’re at a critical point in the war,” one senior military official said. “If we send the message that we’re letting up, what incentive does the Taliban have to make a deal with us?”

The confirmation hearing for Leon Panetta is coming up. The nominee for defense secretary should be grilled intensely on this topic. Is the administration’s first priority national security or to pay for only the defense that allows the Obama domestic spending binge to continue unabated? Sadly, we already know the answer to that one.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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