Less than a year on, the bill for Iraq is already up to $166 billion -- the $79 billion President Bush got to fight the war, and now the $87 billion he has just requested to fight the peace there and in Afghanistan. The sums are staggering. The repercussions to the nation's future will be more so. While Bush is staking his credibility on nation-building in the Middle East -- exactly the sort of nation-building he derided while campaigning three years ago -- he is doing so on the back of American taxpayers and at the expense of the nation's financial stability.
So far no one is picking up the check but taxpayers, and even they'll be forced to bill it to the national credit card. Surpluses are history. This year's budget deficit may reach a record $500 billion. With Iraq turning into a California-size bail-out and Afghanistan regressing into anarchy, the domestic economy still shedding jobs and Bush still urging Congress to make three years of needless tax cuts permanent, next year's deficit will grow fatter still. Bush seems dangerously unconcerned. He is flashing resolve as if it were hard currency. Worse, while desperately making the case for Iraq as the new nexus of the war on terror, he is peddling allusions to 9/11 as if manipulating America's emotions were a good enough substitute for strategic clarity.
One Republican official told The New York Times that rebuilding Iraq will cost $75 billion, not including the cost of military occupation. The United Nations estimates reconstruction costs at $30 billion for just the first three years. But Iraq also owes $230 billion in commercial debts to other nations and in reparation costs to Kuwait. As occupier and administrator-in-chief, that's the load the United States has taken on. As commander in chief, that's the mess Bush has brought us into.
Tin cup extended to the world, the president asked for sacrifices in his speech to the nation Sunday night. But whose? Other nations are not thrilled at contributing up to $45 billion in exchange for little or no power-sharing in Iraq. Among American taxpayers, the rich are enjoying golden windfall from the steepest tax cuts since 1981. They're not being asked to contribute an extra dime. Future generations will pay -- in higher taxes, costlier mortgages, less expansive standards of living -- unless Congress stops enabling Bush's Strangelove stratagems and begins reckoning with their consequences.
Begin with the $87 billion request. It isn't just another government appropriation. The number, a single-year request unlikely to diminish come next year, or the year after, must be put in perspective to be understood as the folly that it represents, as the splurge of historic proportion that it is:
· The sum is larger than the entire public school education budgets of Florida, California and New York State combined. School construction in the United States is reeling, teachers' salaries are chronically low, pre-school and after-school programs are being cut, and in some cases (as in Oregon last spring) school systems are shutting down early for lack of money. But the "no child left behind" administration sees no irony in asking for an abstract "sacrifice" and a very real $87 billion for imperial projects at the fringes of civilization.
· The one-year sum is larger than the entire cost of the Marshall Plan, which lasted four years and cost American taxpayers a total of $11.8 billion in 1950 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, the Marshall Plan would have a total cost of $86 billion today, with this difference: The plan helped 16 nations and 270 million people in Europe rebuild after World War II, compared with the Bush Plan in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will mostly pay for military occupation, with trickle down benefits going to 24 million Iraqis and 28 million Afghans.
· Bush's $87 billion request is smaller than the cost to taxpayers of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s -- a bailout that financially plagued the administration of the first President Bush, whose record budget deficits stood until the second Bush broke them. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, as of the end of 1999, the S&L crisis had cost taxpayers $124 billion over two decades. If the costs of the Iraq war appropriated just five months ago and Sunday's request are added up, the $166 billion bill dwarfs even the S&L bail-out.
· Between 1991 and 2001, it cost the former West Germany $540 billion to absorb and rebuild the economy of the former East Germany -- an annual cost of $54 billion to Germany's financial institutions and taxpayers, far less than Bush's one-year request for Iraq and Afghanistan, and a fraction of the combined war costs.
No wonder Bush is extending a tin cup to the world. But it isn't only Iraq and Afghanistan he must rebuild. The American economy, too, is staggering under Bush's sightless, reckless leadership, the kind of leadership that gives recalls a good name.
© 2003 News-Journal Corporation