Hawking a war with no pricetag

February 28, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that President Bush is telling us that attacking Iraq will bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, it seems reasonable to ask what the cost will be and who will pay it.

The White House's answer essentially is we'll let you know later, but meanwhile we're going to keep pressing Congress for another round of huge tax cuts, mostly for the well-off who don't need them.

"When the administration has something that is ready to get sent up to the Hill ... we will share it," said presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer the other day concerning the cost of the impending war.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked what it will take to oust Saddam Hussein and stabilize Iraq, offered more of the same: "To pretend that someone can even marginally, usefully speculate on that, when no decision has been made, is obviously not ... a very useful exercise."

That view, however, has never stopped any administration from offering all manner of budget proposals that have later proved to be out in left field. The White House argument that it can't venture an estimate on the cost of the Iraqi adventure until the shooting starts is simply a way to delay further domestic dissent.

Pentagon estimates vary from $60 billion to $95 billion, none of which is included in the president's pending budget. Any amount in that range could push the federal deficit to a record level.

It's voodoo Reaganomics all over again, except that in boosting military spending and cutting taxes, President Bush doesn't have the chutzpah of his conservative Republican predecessor to contend that he can balance the budget at the same time.

The president, in his speech the other night painting his prospective pre-emptive war in humanitarian terms, left the clear impression that the postwar bill won't be cheap.

"We will deliver medicine to the sick," he promised. "And we are now moving into place nearly 3 million emergency rations to feed the hungry. We will make sure that Iraq's 55,000 food distribution sites, operating under the oil-for-food program, are stocked and open as soon as possible."

The United States, certainly, should do no less, and Mr. Bush said "rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own."

But his insistence on launching the war without U.N. backing, if necessary, doesn't seem a promising way to ensure such help from others.

"Much is asked of America in this year of 2003," he said later. But he apparently intends to ask more from some than from others - for example, first responders to terrorism in the cities and states and public school systems across the country.

When the nation's governors called on the president last week, he acknowledged that the $3.5 billion finally approved by Congress for counterterrorism wasn't enough and blamed the Republican-controlled legislature.

Governors of both parties later reported that Mr. Bush had flatly rebuffed their pleas for more money for "unfunded federal mandates" - such as for counterterrorism and education - that were dumped on them.

In contrast to the president's pitch for hefty new federal tax cuts, the governors noted that most of them are required by their state constitutions to balance their budgets and hence will have to cut more deeply into social programs and/or raise city and state taxes.

Both at home and abroad, whether it's Mr. Bush's impatience for war or his passion for more tax cuts, his penchant for having his way is shattering the "new tone" of cooperation he promised when he assumed the presidency.

During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to have both guns and butter - fighting abroad while continuing his Great Society agenda at home.

This president also is asking for little home-front sacrifice, except from all of those who will pay the price of federal program retrenchments and resultant higher taxes at the city and state levels.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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