IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The bottom line on Iraq

As Petraeus and Crocker offer sober assessments of Iraq, one question arises: Why is the war's cost being transferred to future generations?
/ Source: National Journal

This week's congressional hearings on Iraq were not the upbeat celebration that many of the war's supporters might have expected after months of declining violence.

Instead, the marathon sessions were a sobering, often-grim reminder of how far Iraq remains from durable stability -- and how much more the United States might need to invest, in lives and money, to leave behind a nation that met the definition of success offered at the hearings by the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. of Arizona: "a peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threats to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists." That is, if such a state can be forged in Iraq at all.

While justly celebrating the security gains that the surge in American troops has helped to produce, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were unsentimental in describing the road ahead. "We haven't turned any corners," Petraeus warned. "We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel." Crocker, whose world-weary answers sometimes sound as if they were scripted by Graham Greene or Raymond Chandler, often reduced his message to five flinty words: Nothing is easy in Iraq.

The Baghdad duo's somber caution contrasted with the somewhat chirpy optimism of McCain, who insisted in his opening statement that "success is within reach." In fact, Petraeus and Crocker repeatedly suggested that if success is defined by building an Iraqi state anything close to what McCain described, it will require an even more extended American commitment, with all the physical and financial costs that would entail.

In that way, Petraeus and Crocker framed what may be the central question about the war during Campaign 2008: How much is America willing to spend to try to stabilize Iraq? And, just as important, if the war really is crucial to America's security, shouldn't today's taxpayers finance it?

Iraq is the first major war that this country has fought by transferring the entire cost to future generations, including the generation fighting the war, through government debt. President Bush has never proposed raising taxes to pay for the conflict. Instead, he has presided over an increase in domestic spending and substantially cut taxes in 2003, an unprecedented step during wartime. "In every other major war ... we raised taxes," says Robert Hormats, author of The Price of Liberty, an authoritative and insightful recent book on how America has financed its wars. "This is the first major war where we have cut taxes ... and it is the first major war where we have increased domestic ... spending rather than cut it. As a result, the entire incremental cost of the war has been borrowed."

That cost is formidable. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that the Iraq war has already cost $600 billion. That bill is rising by $10.3 billion per month. Because all of that money has been borrowed, the interest on that additional debt might swell the price tag by another $600 billion over the next decade, the House Budget Committee estimates.

Hormats, who held senior foreign-policy positions under Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, notes that in most major wars, American political leaders have publicly debated how to apportion costs between the present and the future -- and have tried to tilt the balance as much as possible toward the present.

New taxes paid for one-quarter of the costs of the Civil War, for one-third of World War I's costs, and for nearly half of World War II's. Even when confronted with the unprecedented expense of those titanic wars, our leaders "had a very keen sense of not imposing inordinate burdens on posterity," says Hormats, now a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Before Iraq, the only exceptions to this pattern were the Mexican-American War in 1846 (a smaller conflict during which President Polk rejected additional taxes) and the Vietnam War (when President Johnson initially resisted tax hikes, then agreed to one in 1968). It's probably no coincidence that both of those wars also bitterly divided the nation (amid charges that the president dissembled on the way in). If Bush and McCain believe they can convince America that keeping many thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq is indispensable to our security, there is a simple way for them to prove it: Ask the country to pay for it.