Big government is back

March 25, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - War is unpredictable, and there is no reason to think the invasion of Iraq will be an exception. Only one thing about war is certain: It enhances the size, power, reach and prestige of the federal government.

Conservatives say they want to curb the role of government in our lives and reduce its claim on our earnings. But this time, as so often before, they have been the most enthusiastic supporters of a policy that will unerringly subvert those goals.

During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush explained the key difference between himself and Al Gore: "He trusts the government. I trust you." If Mr. Gore were to become president, declared Mr. Bush, "the era of big government being over is over."

But even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, big government was getting a new lease on life. Since then, things have gotten worse. Mr. Bush has created a federal department the size of Salt Lake City to ensure "homeland security," proposed to increase the Pentagon budget by more than $100 billion just in his first term, declared his intent to bring democracy and liberty to the entire Middle East and appointed himself imperial viceroy of Iraq.

"The federal government will spend over $21,000 per household in 2003 - a level exceeded only during World War I," notes Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Could President Gore have done worse?

That's before we get the tab for invading Iraq, which could exceed $100 billion - more than the annual budget for the departments of Energy, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Justice combined. Worse, the actual expense for bombs, bullets and fuel is the least of the cost of Mr. Bush's plan for Iraq. For years to come, American taxpayers will also be on the hook for running and rebuilding a country devastated by economic sanctions and war.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has said the occupation of Iraq could require "several hundred thousand soldiers." The Congressional Budget Office estimates it could cost up to $45 billion a year, and could take several years. It's not far-fetched to imagine the United States burning through half a trillion dollars over the next decade.

Once the war is over, reports The Wall Street Journal, "the administration plans to begin everything from repairing Iraqi roads, schools and hospitals to revamping its financial rules and government payroll system. Agencies such as the U.S. Treasury Department would be deeply involved in overhauling the country's central bank, and some U.S. government officials would serve as `shadow ministers' to oversee Baghdad's bureaucracies." We'll also have to refurbish airports, harbors and power plants, bring the health care system into the modern era, and restore the oil industry to full strength.

Americans don't much like to pay the cost of governing this country. Now we'll get to pay for governing another one as well.

How long will the American military be in Iraq? We occupied Germany after World War II, and we still have troops there. The assumption is we'll get out quicker this time. But we had the same intention then.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the first supreme commander of NATO, said in 1951, "If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed." Governments acquire responsibilities more eagerly than they shed them.

Paying for all this will fall on the heavy-laden American taxpayer. Journalist Randolph Bourne, reflecting on the experience of World War I, wrote that "war is the health of the state." He knew that nothing is so sure to fatten the federal leviathan.

Under Ronald Reagan, who was no fan of government, the federal budget grew by 23 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms, in just eight years. Why? Not because he was lavishing money on welfare and other social programs, but because, to meet the Soviet threat, he boosted defense spending by 42 percent above inflation.

The redeeming feature of Mr. Reagan's effort was that once the Cold War had been won, the American military shrank, and so did its budget. But the war in Iraq looks like a down payment on an endless obligation. And Mr. Bush's policy of pre-emption suggests that once we've liberated Baghdad, we may target Tehran and Pyongyang.

Republicans, you can be sure, will back President Bush in any military adventure, whatever the cost. The era of big government being over is over. And this time, conservatives can't blame it on liberals.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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