A War We Can't Afford

We can’t pay for the conflict in Afghanistan. So why are we still there?

Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute complains that "Certain members of the progressive caucus see this as very attractive because it has the chance of increasing the unpopularity of the war." Roberton Williams of the Urban Institute-Brookings Institute Tax Policy Center makes the same point: "Look at who's pushing this. It's people opposed to the war."

While Republican politicians continue the raise the alarm over new domestic spending initiatives, they fall curiously silent when it comes to America's oversize military budget and war costs.

Indeed, the conservative Heritage Foundation, long a proponent of reduced spending, put out a special handout entitled "THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: Costs in Context." According to Heritage, $95 billion in 2010 is "a small price to pay," "a tiny fraction of federal spending," "small relative to America's past wars," "far less than TARP, bailouts, and the stimulus," and "smaller than the annual growth in entitlements."

These are all true as far as they go, but spending on almost every federal program is small compared to the overall deficit. When Rep. Woolsey complained that war outlays had "exploded the lid off our national debt," she could have made the same comment about a myriad of domestic programs as well.

Moreover, Heritage's statements are not ones conservatives typically make regarding proposals for new domestic spending initiatives. And the military spending adds up: since 2001 Washington has spent nearly $1 trillion on Afghanistan and Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office figures the cost over the next decade could run $1.6 trillion. The interest on war-related debt adds another $100 billion. And the Obama administration is hiking non-war related military outlays, merely slowing the rate of increase.

Washington is spending far too much. There is no easy way to pay for an expanded war in Afghanistan. Higher taxes at least impose the real cost on the present generation. More debt continues the dishonest fiction that the American people can get something for nothing.

But the solution is to cut expenditures. The fact that Washington is spending too much money on domestic programs is no excuse for unnecessary military expenditures. Defense outlays need to be evaluated critically on their own terms.

This is where congressional Democrats should mount their attack. Neither higher taxes nor new war bonds is the issue. The problem is the extension of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and expansion of conflict in Afghanistan. Even more dubious are military deployments protecting prosperous and populous allies throughout Asia and Europe. Americans no longer can afford to subsidize rich friends and remake poor dependents all around the globe.

The United States is attempting to run a quasi-empire on the cheap. How we do the paying is less important than what we are paying for. Much of today's "defense" spending has nothing to do with defending America. Washington should bring our foreign ends into conformity with our domestic means.


Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon).