War budget

How far will the United States go? The time has come to ask the Bush Administration about the war on terrorism, its aims and costs. Senate majority leader, Senator Tom Daschle (D–S.D.), began the task gingerly enough on February 28: "I think there is expansion without at least a clear direction." This came after several weeks of "mission creep." The Pentagon has now sent troops to the Philippines essentially in pursuit of a group of bandits; that move was followed by talk of sending U. S. Army Special Forces to Georgia (the nation, not the state), to Yemen (where there are now 200 to 400 U.S. troops), and perhaps to Somalia and Colombia. Colombia? The United States has long provided non-combat military assistance and support for its war on drugs. Recently Colombia’s long-running and vicious civil war has taken another downward spiral, and the government has called for greater U.S. assistance. It would be dangerous and futile to involve U.S. troops in this bloody struggle under the rubric of the war on terrorism, or any other rubric. Meanwhile, the status of President George W. Bush’s often cited "axis of evil"—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—remains confused and ambiguous. Are we or are we not targeting any or all of them? Last month, the president assured his Asian hosts that the United States would not attack North Korea. But what about Iran? What cause could the president offer for an attack on Iran? That leaves Iraq (about which more below).

In the meantime, a fierce battle broke out in early March with U.S. and Afghani forces fighting regrouped Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters—underlining the distance from peace in Afghanistan. As long as a country of warlords remains unsettled, the terrorists are going to find places to hide and to fight another day. Prudence would seem to dictate finishing up one war before beginning another. Nonetheless, the administration has many yet unspecified targets for the war on terrorism as Bush’s March 11 speech, delivered six months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, made clear. The breadth of its aspirations is signaled by the 12-percent increase in defense spending (up $48 billion to $379 billion) called for in the 2003 fiscal-year budget. What exactly will this war cost? What other needs are we sacrificing to fund it? The Bush budget asks for the largest single military increase since Ronald Reagan’s during the eighties in the grip of the cold war. There are other unfortunate similarities: cuts in domestic spending, diversion of Social Security funds, and a stubborn commitment to tax cuts. The net result: While spending more, the government will take in less. That adds up to a deficit crisis worse than the United States suffered in the early nineties: this round will come in 2010 as baby boomers start applying for Social Security.

The head of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Robert Byrd (D–W.Va.), warned the Department of Defense (DOD) not to expect a blank check, and Arizona Republican Bob Stump of the House Armed Services Committee promised to look at the budget tradeoffs required for funding the 12-percent military increase. Their warnings are promising, but congressmen and -women face enormous temptations to protect hometown defense industries, many of which manufacture outmoded weapons systems and host unneeded military bases. In addition to the pork barrel, there is a big chunk of money for a missile defense system, still unproved and, given the low-tech attacks of September 11, still unnecessary. Finally, a recent leaked report has the administration considering plans for developing new and "cleaner" nuclear weapons. Just what the world needs!

This squaring off between Congress and the DOD is all to the good, and unexpected in an election year when Republicans do not want to quarrel with their leader and Democrats do not want to be branded antiwar. All to the good that is, if congressional hearings actually probe the administration’s plans for the continuing struggle against terrorism, which as much as military action, must include robust diplomacy, accurate intelligence gathering, good detective work, and effective security measures. And all to the good, only if the true tradeoffs in the president’s budget between domestic needs and military measures are made clear: it is the poor, the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, and children who will pay. The budget needs careful scrutiny. The administration needs to defend that 12-percent increase—and all of the increases in the years to come—if they are defensible.

And then there is Iraq....

Published in the 2002-03-22 issue: 
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