This nation faces a clear choice this September. President Bush will insist that Congress continue the war in Iraq and demand another $50 billion for the occupation. That is on top of the $147 billion already pending for Iraq and Afghanistan this year, and that's on top of the $460 billion annual military budget. The United States will spend about as much as the rest of the world combined on its military this year.
At the same time, the president vows to veto any spending on domestic programs that exceed his budget. He has threatened to veto any increases for children's health care (even as more children go without health insurance); for college loans and scholarships; for public schools; for renewable energy; for basic infrastructure. The difference between the president's budget and that of Congress is about $20 billion. The president says that's a lot of money, over "$1,300 in higher spending every second of every minute of every hour." His request for Iraq this year is about eight times greater, or $10,400 every second of every hour. The total estimated cost of Iraq now exceeds $1 trillion -- and rising.
Democrats in Congress are virtually unanimous in wanting to get U.S. troops out of the civil war in Iraq. Republicans are waiting for the reports of Gen. David Petraeus, the intelligence agencies, the GAO and independent commissions -- all due this month. The reports, no doubt, will differ, with the administration claiming progress and others being more skeptical. Supporters of the war will see the glass half full; opponents, half empty.
But there really isn't much difference in fact. Occupation of a country is hard, costly and deadly. Petraeus has said from the beginning that, if all goes well, it will take 10 to 20 years to pacify Iraq, rebuild it and create a functioning democracy there. That would raise the cost of Iraq to more than $2 trillion, with more than 6,000 American lives likely to be lost. A lot more than $20 billion in this year's domestic budget will be sacrificed to bear those costs.
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Already we see the domestic costs of this war and our continuing commitment to police the world. A bridge falls in Minneapolis. An aged steam valve breaks and terrorizes Manhattan. The levees are still not rebuilt to the needed strength in New Orleans. College is getting priced out of reach of working families. Our schools grow older, more crowded and more in need of repair. Our transportation system -- from airports to roads to subways -- cries out for investment. Our broadband system is the slowest in the industrial world. Our park facilities are in disrepair. America's domestic investment deficit is strangling opportunity.
In Iraq, the United States has a three-point plan. Stop the flow of guns and secure the streets. Consolidate a democracy. Invest in vital infrastructure and put Iraqis to work. The United States could use that three-point plan, too. It would be a lot more cost effective here since we're not yet in the midst of sectarian civil strife.
The choice this September isn't really about Iraq, it is about the United States. Like Rome and Britain and the USSR before us, we face a choice: empire or republic? We can police the streets of Baghdad, patrol the seas, guard the borders of Korea and Bosnia, build a new generation of more deadly nuclear and space weaponry, or we can invest here at home in areas vital to our social and economic health. We can be the globocop or the city on the hill -- but we can't be both.
© 2007 The Chicago Sun Times