Truth is first casualty

March 26, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - What a difference a few days make.

Only last week, before the shooting started in earnest in Iraq, the White House was insisting its numbers-crunchers couldn't possibly give Congress an estimate of what the long-planned war would cost until it actually began.

Ordinarily, the lawmakers could simply have examined President Bush's latest budget proposal for the figures. But, alas, the administration had included no provision either for fighting the war or for the huge costs for reconstruction of Iraq and Mr. Bush's optimistic vision of replacing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship with a functioning democracy.

In any event, it had to be clear to everybody, except perhaps Alice's White Rabbit, that a major outlay of somebody's bucks was going to be required, even in this administration, whose dictionary seems not to include the word "sacrifice" except by troops in the field.

It so happened that at the time Congress was still debating President Bush's call for $726 billion in new tax cuts over the next decade, the bulk of which again would go to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. After all, as he reminded us in the 2000 campaign, they're the ones who pay most of the taxes, so it's only fair.

Obviously, the White House didn't want to put a price tag on the war until Congress had committed itself to the requested tax cuts. But when the Senate prematurely appeared to do so, the administration jumped the gun and reported Monday it had finally managed somehow to calculate the war's cost at $74.7 billion.

That figure almost certainly will prove low if it's been based on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's prewar daydreams of Iraqi soldiers and civilians with garlands in their hair welcoming American liberators with open arms.

But the White House price tag for the war has caused second thoughts in Congress about the size of the new tax cuts, and the administration doesn't say where the new war money will come from.

Except we have already been assured by Mitchell Daniels, the president's budget director, that higher federal deficits - approaching $300 billion - don't mean much. Where has the old Republican mantra gone about worshipping balanced budgets?

It used to be an article of GOP faith that what government needed more than anything was solid business practices. What happened to the standard Republican pitch against Democratic budget-busters that they would see things differently if they "ever had to meet a payroll"?

It should be remembered that, unlike the senior President Bush's first Persian Gulf war, wherein U.N. allies picked up about 80 percent of the costs, his son's war comes after his nose-thumbing derogation of the international body, which isn't likely to encourage financial support during or even after the war.

While the White House allegedly was unable to calculate the war's costs until the shooting started, presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer demonstrated his calculating skills the other day in describing Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing."

Its population, he informed a White House briefing, totals "approximately 1.18 billion people around the world" with "a combined GDP [gross domestic product] of approximately $21.7 trillion" and representing "every major race, religion and ethnic group ... from every continent on the globe."

Just how much money the coalition was prepared to kick in for the war, or how many of the 1.18 billion people might have been in the streets of their various willing countries demonstrating against it, the president's chief propagandist didn't say.

The administration is taking much credit, well deserved, for "embedding" American reporters among U.S. combat forces in Iraq to give the folks at home an independent picture of the battlefield.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to have some of the same embedding among the administration numbers-crunchers on the home front to encourage truth-in-packaging on this war, in which the only Americans being asked to sacrifice are the troops fighting it.

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

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