Monday, September 15, 2003


Newspapers today were filled with the grimaced words of Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to back President Bush’s request for $87 billion for our efforts in Iraq.

“This is not just about Iraq. This is a continuing operation in the war on terror,” he said, later iterating, for those that missed it, “That $87 billion is part of the global war on terror.”

It’s true that members of terrorist organizations have gone to Iraq to fight United States soldiers, which is distinct from terrorists fighting the United States, but Cheney’s quotes hinting at the retrofitted “flypaper theory” just blurs further the fact that Iraq has never been shown to export terrorism (with the possible exception of an assassination attempt against President George H.W. Bush). The United States being in Iraq never had anything to with fighting terrorism, except by the thin rationalization that attacking it would allow us to remake the Middle East and eliminate the terrorists spawning in its various countries.

No, the $87 billion the president seeks from Congress is part political cover for an occupation hurting the president and Republicans in general, part continuation of the other reason for the Iraq war: draining the country of its ability to pay for social services.

They’re already at risk. New estimates show the country in a $553 billion shortfall next year, which would put the 2004 deficit at 4.8 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That office and those of the Treasury and Management and Budget say that percentage of GDP was last hit or surpassed in 1986, when it was 5 percent. The year before that, it was 5.1 percent. (And in 1984 it was 4.8 percent again, and the year before that, a painful 6 percent.) And, as Reuters said in July “Democrats and some analysts say that when Social Security is set aside, the actual deficit could approach $600 billion, or 5.5 percent of GDP.”

This is okay, the administration says, because economic growth will keep the deficit low as a percentage of the gross domestic product. This is not okay, notes William D. Ferguson, an economics professor at Grinnell College, because it’s not true. (Ferguson of Iowa, eh? Well, while Ferguson may not be a very noted economist, at least he’s not noted for lying, either, as is the current administration.)

“The swelling deficits of the 1980s proved the ‘supply-side’ arguments of that era badly mistaken,” he wrote in the May 15 edition of The Baltimore Sun. “In 1980, before the Reagan tax cuts, the federal deficit stood at $73.8 billion. By 1990, at the end of a long economic expansion that, all else equal, should have reduced the deficit, it had jumped to $221.2 billion. That historical experience indicates the sad and costly error of current tax cut arguments.” It was a rise; the 1980 deficit, in 1990 dollars, would have been only $115.8 billion.

What makes it worse is the screaming hypocrisy of Bush and his administration, who were deficit hawks on the campaign trail and early in their time in the White House.

“A deficit will hurt economic vitality,” candidate Bush said.

“We cannot go down the path of soaring budget deficits. We must meet our defense and homeland security needs, and hold the line on other spending,” President Bush said in his Aug. 17, 2002, radio address -- a significant time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and assault on Afghanistan.

The rhetoric has changed, first with Mitchell E. Daniels, then of the Office of Management and Budget, telling us in January that “We ought not to hyperventilate about this. By any historical measure, these are manageable deficits,” ending in February with various White House spinners saying deficits were actually good, because they encourage smaller government.

Sound familiar? It’s a progenitor of the flypaper theory. Now that we’re in Iraq and all sorts of ne’er-do-wells are flooding the country in the hopes of killing some Americans, White House apologists are claiming that was the idea all along, because it saps energy terrorists would otherwise use to attack innocents. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld alluded to it on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, saying it was “better to be fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan than it is in the United States.” No one’s sure whether it works, but it almost certainly isn’t true that it was the intention of the White House.

Which is not to say the Bushies are entirely inconsistent. Cheney’s insistence yesterday that the $87 billion (which is just for the “foreseeable future”) is “part of the global war on terror” is perfectly in tune with what former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in July when defending the gargantuan, growing deficit in general: “What is the cost of a country that is attacked? What is the price that the American people would have to pay if something like (9/11) were ever to happen again?” What is offensive here isn’t the inconsistency, but the level of rationalization, since the tax cuts accounting for a large part of the deficit had nothing to do with our security and sure as hell haven’t created the jobs they were supposed to.

White House personnel can go on making it up as they go along. But the attack on Iraq was not an attack on terrorists, just a willful experiment foisted on the American people, Iraq and the world at a vulnerable time. Thanks to Bush administration hubris, now we have to spend what it takes to get out of Iraq and leave it better than we found it -- and it looks like the expense will go some distance toward wrecking life for many Americans.

But I’m still waiting for someone to call the White House on why funding for Afghanistan, where we actually did take on terrorists, is less important (because fewer people are paying attention, of course). And to point out that the $87 billion was a completely avoidable expense at a time we really could benefit from avoiding one.

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