We must do what's necessary to maximize our chances of success in Iraq because the potential consequences of failure are so dire. But the true scale of "what's necessary" is only slowly beginning to dawn on Congress and the American people.
After denying for months that estimates of spending on Iraq were even possible, the White House leaked word two weeks ago that it would seek $60 billion to $70 billion in the 2004 budget, on top of the $79 billion that had already been appropriated for the war and occupation.
That drew gasps from members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, who had been told last spring by top Bush officials that the reconstruction of Iraq could be financed largely through oil revenues. Congress had already been trying to come to grips with the news that next year's budget deficit was estimated to reach $480 billion, by far the biggest deficit on record. Another $70 billion would push the deficit to well over half-a-trillion dollars.
Those gasps turned to howls Sunday night, when President Bush told the nation that he would actually be seeking $87 billion in next year's budget to cover the costs of occupation.
And even that startling figure had an important asterisk to it.
In truth, the Bush administration had concluded that occupation and reconstruction of Iraq could require yet another $55 billion, in addition to the $87 billion requested by Bush, for a total of $142 billion. It chose to leave that $55 billion out of its request to Congress, supposedly because it planned to seek that amount in contributions from other countries.
But that's not going to happen, and the administration knows it. In fact, last week Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were asked in a closed-door Senate hearing how the administration was going to close that $55 billion gap.
"They looked at each other and there was a sort of an embarrassing pause," a Senate official told the Los Angeles Times. "Powell said maybe we'll get a few hundred million from Europe and maybe a little help from Japan."
That would seem to give us two options, neither very palatable: We will have to cough up most of that additional $55 billion ourselves, or spend considerably less in Iraq than the administration believes is needed to stabilize that country. And given the administration's record, it's worth wondering whether $142 billion is even the real bottom line.
Even before the administration released its Iraq spending estimate, the highly respected Concord Coalition was warning that federal deficits over the next five years were going to total almost $2 trillion. To give you some idea what that means, the entire national debt rung up by this country from 1776 to 1999 was also roughly $2 trillion.
In other words, with Iraq-related expenses thrown in, we will incur more debt as a nation over the next five years alone than we did during the first 223 years of this country's existence. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a majority of the blame for that soaring deficit can be attributed to higher spending and tax cuts enacted in just the last three years.
In the same speech in which he announced his request of $87 billion for Iraq, Bush warned of the sacrifices that would be required "to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has spoken in similar terms, describing our effort to remake the Middle East -- of which Iraq is only the first step -- as a "generational commitment."
The generation being committed, however, is not our own. The sacrifices that will be required will not be our own. With the notable exception of those serving in the U.S. military, we are refusing to make those sacrifices ourselves and are dumping them on our children and grandchildren, who are helpless to stop us.
This is not the act of a great country or a great people.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution