The financial costs of war

Bush's bogus arguments about defense spending fall apart under scrutiny.

By Steve Benen

Published April 10, 2008 8:04PM (EDT)

I've noticed that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to make a point of emphasizing the extraordinary financial costs associated with the war in Iraq. The message must be resonating with voters because this morning, the president offered his most detailed response ever to the charge.

Think about the Cold War. During the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, our defense budget rose as high as 13 percent of our total economy. Even during the Reagan administration, when our economy expanded significantly, the defense budget still accounted for about 6 percent of GDP. Our citizens recognized that the imperative of stopping Soviet expansion justified this expense.

Today, we face an enemy that is not only expansionist in its aims, but has actually attacked our homeland -- and intends to do so again. Yet our defense budget accounts for just over 4 percent of our economy -- less than our commitment at any point during the four decades of the Cold War. This is still a large amount of money, but it is modest -- a modest fraction of our nation's wealth.

First, if Bush wants to look at defense spending in a historical context, I'm delighted: "Today's defense spending is 14% above the height of the Korean War, 33% above the height of the Vietnam War, 25% above the height of the 'Reagan Era' buildup and is 76% above the Cold War average. In fact, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the annual defense budget -- not including the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has gone up 34%. Including war costs, defense spending has gone up 86% since 2001."

Second, the president referenced previous presidents and military eras without noting an important detail: Before Bush, no president ever cut taxes during a war. Lincoln raised taxes to pay for the Civil War. McKinley raised taxes to finance the Spanish-American War. Wilson raised the top income tax rate to 77 percent to afford WWI. Taxes were raised, multiple times, to help the nation pay for WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Even the first President Bush raised taxes after the first war with Iraq to, you guessed it, keep the deficit from spiraling out of control.

Why is this important? Because Bush isn't just spending extraordinary sums on a disastrous war, he's doing so in the most fiscally insane way possible -- by becoming the first president to ever put a military conflict on the nation's charge card, handing the bill to future generations.

With this in mind, Bush spoke this morning as if current defense spending was modest and inconsequential. This is sheer nonsense.

Steve Benen

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