Fiddling While Crucial Programs Starve

Notice the price of gasoline lately? Isn't it great that we have secured Iraq's oil? And as Congress signs off on yet another huge supplementary grant to supposedly protect U.S. interests in the Mideast, our president pathetically begs his Saudi buddies for a price break. As the fall of Rome showed, imperialism never pays.

Of course, back in 2003, conquering Iraq looked like a great package deal, what with all that oil -- second only to Saudi Arabia -- and the manufactured photo ops of cheering Iraqis. So what if those pesky weapons of mass destruction weren't really there? So what if no solid links to Al Qaeda are ever found? This was a win-win, as the corporate guys like to say: Not only would we be able to conduct this operation for next to nothing, we would be welcomed with flowers.

"There is a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money," then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress days before the war, in testimony on the potential costs of invading Iraq. "We are talking about a country that can finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." In the real world, however, this turned out to be utter nonsense.

With approval of the latest spending bill, taxpayers will have been forced to cough up more than $300 billion for the war to date -- above and beyond the annual $400-billion Pentagon budget -- and tens of billions for a bungled reconstruction. Even if the United States can lower its troop commitment to 40,000 troops in Iraq by 2010, as some Pentagon strategists optimistically anticipate, the war could still end up costing U.S. taxpayers up to $646 billion by 2015, according to Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. If insurgency, corruption and incompetence continue to plague the U.S. occupation as they have steadily for the last two years, however, the number could surge to a trillion dollars or more.

We need to put such gargantuan numbers in some perspective. The emergency funding that the Senate passed 99 to 0 last week gives the military roughly $80 billion and pays for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan only through September. That is twice what President Bush insists he needs to cut from the federal support for Medicaid over the next decade.

Already the red state of Missouri is set to end its Medicaid program entirely within the next three years because of a lack of funds. As the Los Angeles Times reported, that will save the state $5 billion, but at the cost of ending healthcare for the more than 1 million Missourians enrolled in the program. That sum is less than half of what Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's old company, alone has been paid for reconstruction efforts in Iraq, without much to show for it in terms of improving the Iraqis' quality of life.

Similarly, with roughly 10% of what we've spent in Iraq, we could make up the $27-billion federal funding shortfall in paying for Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which tells public schools that they will be all but scrapped if they don't improve -- yet it doesn't provide the means to do so. This number comes from a lawsuit filed by school districts in Texas, Michigan and Vermont and the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers organization.

Sadly, these domestic failures provide a far greater long-term threat to our nation's security than the hyped-up claims surrounding our foreign adventures. Abroad, we must "support our troops" at all costs -- even if the cost is their lives -- while at home, the nation's leaders are all about tough love.

"Government is not here to do everything for everybody," admonished Missouri state Rep. Jodi Stefanick, a Republican representing suburban St. Louis. "We have to draw the line somewhere." Just not in Iraq, apparently.

Welcome to late-era Rome, where mindless militaristic expansion is considered patriotic and where demagogues who recklessly waste taxes and young lives in empire-building are deemed valorous. Wolfowitz, for example, has been rewarded for his ignorance and arrogance with the top job at the World Bank.

It is not too late, however, for us to wake up and recall that, in the end, once militarism trumped republicanism, the glory that was Rome proved to be a hollow boast.

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