Paying for Iraq

The president has decided not to bother the American public with an estimate of how much its wars will cost the average taxpayer. He has not included funds for military operations in Iraq in his budget request for the next fiscal year, which begins this October.

This is, of course, an outrage. But by now the public is used to such insults to the democratic process, given the radical nature of this administration. There is little that can be done by anyone -- besides congressional defense hawks from the president's own party -- to force the White House to release its spending plans before the election in November.

The issue is unlikely to go away in coming months because the resumption of open combat in Iraq has led to a possible shortfall of $4 billion for Iraq operations in the current fiscal year, according to Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The situation could become much worse because the siege of Najaf is merely a whiff of things to come if Shiites really open up a "second front" against the occupation forces. A further expansion in military operations could require even more money than the current $4.7 billion monthly burn rate.

Such uncertainty, however, does not justify the administration's claim that it cannot estimate the forces that will be in Iraq starting in October, and therefore cannot project the cost. Apart from constituting a surprising admission of helplessness and confusion, the argument does not hold up historically.

During the Vietnam War, money was budgeted and proposed ahead of time. In the buildup after 1965, when the future was quite uncertain, supplemental funding was used to revise previous budgets and estimates, not substitute for them. There is no reason the current administration cannot similarly propose its best estimate now, and add a supplemental budget later if needed. If Bush stumbles into a wave of good fortune, any unneeded funds could be rescinded.

While the budget issue is likely to dog Bush through the summer, no one has exposed the dirty little secret of military budgets: There is already plenty of money for Iraq in the whopping $423 billion proposed defense budget. It's just being spent on the wrong things.

Strangely, as the Bush administration rapidly increased military spending after 9/11, the budget category that received the largest boost from fiscal year 2002 to 2004 was research and development (R&D) -- the least urgent category given major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although defeating terrorists and the governments that aid them depends largely on having ready, well-trained and well-maintained forces now, rather than on developing more high tech weaponry for the future, the administration is on course to increase yearly R&D levels by an astounding $30 billion. Before Bush's arrival in office, the 1994-2000 average R&D level was $40.4 billion per year, measured in today's dollars. Bush wants $68.9 billion for 2005.

There is undoubtedly some useful research to be done on new equipment for detecting and attacking terrorists, but these types of products do not generally require the huge levels of funding as do items such as super-stealth aircraft. Even if the administration proposed to spend as much as during the Cold War -- $34.0 billion a year on average from 1960 to 1989 in today's dollars -- it could free up well over $20 billion a year for today's wars. The quick rout of Saddam's military during the invasion of Iraq demonstrates that there is no tremendous urgency to develop marginally more capable weapons for conventional combat, and counterterrorist raids surely do not justify a level of R&D spending far in excess of the levels spent during the all-out arms race with the Soviet Union.

The administration has also requested $74.9 billion for weapon purchases next year. A good chunk of that money will go toward a new generation of expensive aircraft, ships, missiles, nuclear weapons and space hardware originally designed to combat a hostile superpower. The most expensive ships and aircraft alone will end up costing over half a trillion dollars.

Meanwhile the simple equipment needed to counter adversaries equipped with rudimentary but effective weaponry is under-funded. The lack of basic equipment in Iraq, like flak jackets and armor, has contributed terribly to the casualty toll there.

The new generation of weapon "platforms" is both marginally relevant to today's complex political conflicts and exceedingly costly. Reducing, and in some cases canceling, these programs while preserving basic military R&D can free tens of billions of dollars annually for more pressing needs.

In February, the Army finally canceled its Comanche attack helicopter. That the Army took this action -- against an overweight, overpriced and mission-less weapon system that it had nevertheless backed strongly for years -- speaks volumes about the pressing need and political ability to shed such outdated weaponry. The U.S. government threw away billions of dollars developing this military helicopter, which was never once used in combat.

The Defense Department is currently scouring its accounts to find and "reprogram" money for Iraq. But it is thinking too small. It's trying to scrape together nickels and dimes, not billions of dollars. If it, or Congress, wishes, they can follow the example of the Army and find the money they want for Iraq by looking at the big budgets for unneeded new weaponry.

In the months to come, the president, be it George Bush or John Kerry, will have to find a way to stabilize the situation in Iraq and extricate U.S. forces. But regardless of whether resources are needed for security or rebuilding, having brought war to Iraq, the United States owes billions of dollars to the Iraqi people to restore their country. We can use the Defense Department's big budgets to rebuild Iraq rather than punish ordinary Americans for one administration's mistake.

Marcus Corbin is a Senior Analyst at the independent Center for Defense Information(www.cdi.org) in Washington, D.C., and co author of a recently released report by CDI and Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) on a rebalanced national security budget.

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