Originally Published: September 15, 2003 6:10 p.m.
WASHINGTON – Newscasts focusing on our war on terror expenses are sounding a little hyperbolic lately – as if we can measure American security in dollars.
Nightly news programs have raised questions about whether we can pay for it. Incredibly, some programs have tied the war's costs to the size of the budget deficit and its speculative effects on interest rates (which, while rising, still remain quite low). They are obviously overlooking the accomplishments being made.
Setting off the hand-wringing was a Washington Post interview with L. Paul Bremer, chief of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, who said it will cost "several tens of billions" of dollars to rebuild the country's infrastructure. He made a similar estimate weeks ago during a CNBC television interview, but that received little notice.
However, Bremer's most recent forecast came on the day that the Congressional Budget Office said that next year's federal budget deficit will be about $480 billion. But the TV news shows rarely put the budget deficit into perspective, such as pointing out the fact that the feds take in more than $2 trillion a year in a massive $11 trillion-a-year economy.
The war on terror has been, and will probably continue to be, costly. Bremer's estimates of Iraq's infrastructure costs do not include the $4 billion a month the Pentagon is spending on its military operations there.
President Bush has sought an $87 billion emergency supplemental spending bill from Congress to pay for additional military costs and other assistance needs. It will be critical to America's success in the war on terrorism.
But let's put the debate over the war's costs and the deficits in a clearer context. Most of the deficit increases since Bush took office are the result of two big, unforeseen events:
First, an economic slowdown that began in the final year of the Clinton presidency spiraled into a recession that shrank federal tax revenues and slashed the budget surpluses. The economy is starting to come back and revenues are up a bit, but, for now, the reduced revenues continue to feed the deficit.
Then came the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which killed more than 3,000 people, stopped the U.S. economy cold, and began America's declared global war on terrorism (and led to the toppling of terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq).
As we did in both world wars and the conflicts after them, we will pay the bills as we always have – with our tax dollars and through short- and long-term debt.
In Iraq's case, we must pay for two operations at once: for U.S. troops who are responsible for military security in the region, and for the rebuilding of that nation's economic infrastructure – new electric power generators, water pumping stations, roads, government facilities, hospitals, police forces and a new Iraqi army.
While this will cost a lot of money, I'm sure we are going to get help from our allies in paying the bills. Terrorists have targeted not only the United States, but also countries throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. These regions have a big stake in this, too.
To this end, the administration will conduct a multilateral conference in Madrid in October where dozens of nations are likely to contribute substantial sums to a reconstruction fund. "We already have 45 countries which have pledged money to the reconstruction," Bremer told thePost.
The administration is also exploring the idea of a United Nations force that would help U.S. commanders in the field to deal with guerrilla and terrorist attacks, taking some of the load off our own forces.
Notably, public support remains strong for the war and the subsequent rebuilding plans – despite the pessimistic news reports that have given little attention to the gains. For example, did you know that nearly 60,000 Iraqis are serving in a civil defense corps, or that Iraqi civilians are forming a facilities protection service to counter sabotage efforts?
"I keep reading about it's a country in chaos," Bremer said. "This is simply not true." Sikander Jouad, 58, a governor in the Babel province of 1.6 million Iraqis, points to several improvements: "We were the first in Iraq to reopen our university and our court system." He added that his people have "good relations" with us.
Of course, Iraq still has many problems in the wake of a war to create a stable, free and democratic nation in a region boiling with hatred and violence. "It is now the point of testing in the war on terror," Bush said last week.
Iraq has become ground zero in the war on terror. This is not a time for doubt and discord.