The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Expensive War


May 11, 2007

Several stories on the War in Iraq hint at subtle yet significant shifts in the politics of the war.

The war is, beyond a doubt, incredibly expensive. All wars are–its a fact of life, there’s just no avoiding it. This war is rapidly becoming the most expensive war the US has ever fought:

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress has approved more than $609 billion for the wars, a figure likely to stand as lawmakers rework their latest spending bill in response to a Bush veto. Requests for $145 billion more await congressional action and would raise the cost in inflation-adjusted dollars beyond the cost of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Where’s the outrage? Its muted, and by design. The Administration is funding this war in such a way as to minimize the burden on the American taxpayer. People don’t feel a financial pinch from the cost of the war, so its less of a concern to the average American’s bottom line each April 15: The Post reports:

But the United States is vastly richer than it was in those days, and the nation’s wealth now dwarfs the price of war, economists said. Last year, spending in Iraq amounted to less than 1 percent of the total economy — about as much as Americans spent shopping online and less than half what they spent at Wal-Mart. Total defense spending is 4 percent of gross domestic product, the figure that measures the nation’s economic output. In contrast, defense spending ate up 14 percent of GDP at the height of the Korean War and 9 percent during the Vietnam War.

And this time, the war bill is going directly on the nation’s credit card. Unlike his predecessors, Bush is financing a major conflict without raising taxes or making significant cuts in domestic programs. Instead, he has cut taxes and run up the national debt. The result, economists said, is a war that has barely dented the average American’s pocketbook and caused few reverberations in the broader economy.

Expensive war, but not expensive for you and me. For now, at least–

Like all debts, however, the bill for Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually come due. While it is unlikely to cause economic upheaval, such as the devastating inflation that followed the Vietnam War, economists foresee substantial increases in government spending to rebuild the nation’s exhausted armed forces, care for its disabled veterans and cover rising interest payments.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton and who was among the winners of the 2001 Nobel prize for economics, [says] “It’s actually turning out to be a very expensive war,” Stiglitz said. But “it has been designed to be a war the American people don’t feel.”

As a result, when the cost does appear, it becomes a very political issue. The costs are real, and have tremendous impact on those effected. Instead of shared cost distributed equitably across the entire nation, the costs touch down in middle America with devastating consequences. Take, for instance, the devastation in Kansas wrought by the Tornado last week. A whole town was destroyed. When that happens, the Governor calls out the National Guard to help the people in need in extra-ordinary circumstances. Yet, when Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius called out the Kansas National Guard, the response was slow, and the people of Kansas, in need after a Tornado ripped apart their town, paid a real price. Where was the Kansas Guard (and, more significantly, their trucks)? Most of them were in Iraq. The NYT reports:

“As you travel around Greensburg, you’ll see that city and county trucks have been destroyed,” Ms. Sebelius, a Democrat, said Monday. “The National Guard is one of our first responders. They don’t have the equipment they need to come in, and it just makes it that much slower.”

In Kansas, the National Guard is operating with 40 percent to 50 percent of its vehicles and heavy machinery, local Guard officials said. Ordinarily, the Guard would have about 660 Humvees and more than 30 large trucks to traverse difficult terrain and transport heavy equipment. When the tornado struck, the Guard had about 350 Humvees and 15 large trucks, said Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state’s adjutant general. The Guard would also usually have 170 medium-scale tactical vehicles used to transport people and supplies — but now it has fewer than 30, he said. On the other hand, General Bunting said, it had more cargo trucks than it needed.

Nonetheless, the governor and officials in other states again expressed concern that the problem could occur again as the stretched National Guard system struggled to respond to disasters at home while also fighting overseas.

The issue is not confined to Kansas, and as the summer disaster season starts (tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and fires) at the same time as the Surge is occupying National Guard units and their equipment, people depending on the government to help them with disaster response will feel the cost of the war.

The difficulty, of course, is that this can quickly become a political fight. As soon as Gov. Sebelius raised the issue of Iraq, the White House immediately fired back, blaming her and the Kansas state government for mismanagement of existing resources–not unlike the dispute between the Administration and Louisiana after Katrina.

The significant political shift is that the moderate Republicans in Congress are starting to feel the heat. A group of them met with the President on Tuesday and told him point blank that his war was hurting the Party (not the country, but the party…), reportedly:

House Republican moderates, in a remarkably blunt White House meeting, warned President Bush this week that his pursuit of the war in Iraq is risking the future of the Republican Party and that he cannot count on GOP support for many more months.

One wonders how many more months…

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.