Paul Pillar

Wars Aren't Free

As the Congressional super committee goes about its work of finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions over the next ten years, difficult trade-offs will abound. Good, worthwhile programs cost money. But sometimes the trade-offs are not so acute; bad programs cost money, too. There is plenty of disagreement, of course, on whether a particular program is good or bad. But at least there ought to be agreement on being honest about the fact that any endeavor undertaken by the government, whether good or bad according to other criteria, does cost money and needs to be paid for.

The single largest contributor to the ballooning of the national debt over the past decade has not been handled with such honesty. The Iraq War, besides also representing the single biggest self-inflicted wound to U.S. national security during the same period, was also the biggest act of fiscal recklessness—reckless in the sense both of the sheer cost of the enterprise and of the failure to make any provision to pay for it, other than going deeper into debt. The George W. Bush administration was the only one in U.S. history to launch a war while cutting taxes. The direct costs of the Iraq War so far are approaching $800 billion. That alone would be over half of what the super committee is charged with finding in savings. Significant additional direct costs, such as long-term care for wounded veterans, will continue even if U.S. troops are out of Iraq at the end of this year, not to mention interest payments on the money borrowed to fund the war. If one figures in all the indirect economic and financial costs of the war, such as the impact on the price of oil, the total cost of the Iraq War to the United States is likely far higher. The dishonest approach to funding was compounded by the repeated use of supplemental war appropriations separate from the rest of the Defense Department budget, as if somehow the war costs did not count in determining how much the United States is spending on its military.

One cannot take back all that lost money, any more than one can take back the deaths of more than 4,400 U.S. service members and the wounds to tens of thousands more. One can avoid prolonging the mistake and get U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule by the end of this year. One can also be cognizant of the continuing costs of the currently biggest U.S. war, the one in Afghanistan, which are running close to $10 billion a month and now total around $440 billion.

And one can be honest about the fact that wars cost money and paying for them means taxes. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) has proposed a war tax, a concept which has a long and well-established history as described by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. Such a tax could take any of several forms, such as a surtax on top of the personal income tax, which is the form it took during the Vietnam War. Such a tax would make a major contribution to reduction of the deficit. It would force accountability on politicians who scream about the debt but also supported a costly war without doing anything to finance it. And it would lead other Americans to become more fully aware of the costs of a war.

The alternative is the situation we have right now, in which some political leaders behave as if a war were free and then, after it has contributed substantially to the deficit and the national debt, to pretend that the war had nothing to do with those fiscal problems and instead to use those problems to ride an ideological hobby horse.