REGARDLESS of how the gulf war ends, the U.S. will have paid a heavy price in terms of things left undone at home. Nowhere will the costs of that neglect be more evident than in the increasingly desperate plight of the nation's cities.
Recent estimates place the cost of the gulf war at around $1 billion a day, if all goes as planned. If fighting drags on, or if the conflict widens, the GlennMcNattcost could go much higher. But the issue is not just one of guns vs. butter. It is also and fundamentally about the kind of society we are asking our troops in the gulf to risk their lives defending.
When the U.S. Conference of Mayors held its annual meeting recently, for example, one of the most commonly heard complaints was that the gulf war had pushed the problems of the nation's cities to the sidelines. In one way or another that has been the fate of urban agendas for nearly a decade now.
From 1980 onward, the country saw a massive shift of responsibility for domestic social programs -- housing, education and health care -- from the federal government to state and local authorities. The change had devastating consequences for the nation's cities, whose economies were already under siege because of the decline in manufacturing industries and middle-class flight to the suburbs.
The decade of the '80s also saw a dramatic widening of the income gap between rich and poor, partly as a result of changes in the tax code that benefited the top 20 percent of income earners at the expense of the bottom 20 percent. Urban poverty, which had been declining over the previous two decades, reversed its fall and began to climb again.
The conservative ideology of the period rationalized these developments by asserting that the federal government's main responsibility was to provide for the national defense and conduct foreign policy.
The anxieties produced by the Cold War helped fuel a huge expansion in military spending, while such problems as homelessness, poor schools or the growth of a permanent underclass of poor people in the nation's urban cores received short shrift on the domestic policy agenda.
The gulf war will demonstrate whether the billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry purchased during the Reagan years actually strengthened the U.S. ability to defend its interests around the world. Regardless, the troops will return to a society still struggling to come to terms with unfinished business.
It is ironic that the Bush administration probably has given more thought to the restoration of Kuwait after the war than it has to the restoration of, say, Newark or Baltimore. Strange also that it will probably spend more time caring for the needs of civilian refugees in the gulf than it will helping the desperate inhabitants of the nation's depressed urban cores.
One of the main objectives of U.S. intervention in the gulf is to ensure the peace and stability of the region. Yet last year homicides in the nation's cities reached epidemic levels, and increasingly large numbers of poor youngsters were growing up under conditions in which unemployment, broken families, violence and drug abuse flourish.
Is it possible the country can mobilize half a million troops, athis one has, arm them with the most sophisticated weaponry in history and ship them halfway around the world to fight an upstart desert dictator -- is it possible that a nation can do all this and still be unable to feed, shelter and educate its own people well enough to prevent its major cities from falling into humiliating, irreversible decline?
While the war is still going on, the nation's energies naturally must be absorbed in bringing it to a successful conclusion. For better or worse, the security of the Persian Gulf region is a vital interest of the U.S. and its allies. It is not true that war never solved anything. Our ability to cope with problems at home ultimately may depend on how successfully we are able deal with the military and political challenges that have convulsed the gulf region.
But neither is it enough to just win the war and bring the troops home. We need to figure out how to make the country they return to more just, less divided along race and class lines, more able to fulfill its promise of equal opportunity and a decent life for all. If our troops can risk dying to defend this county, the least its leaders can do is make sure it's a country worth living in.