Jonathan Coopersmith: We Must Finance this War

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Coopersmith, a historian at Texas A&M University, writing in the Dallas Morning News (Oct. 7, 2003):

confess I have a dog in this fight. I have two small children, and I am worried about the world we are creating for them. Perhaps my biggest concern is the mismanaged postwar occupation of Iraq.

My usual reaction when someone mentions national prestige is to guard my wallet. But regardless of what we think about the decision to invade Iraq, our country now is waist deep in that briar patch and can't leave until some serious semblance of order and sovereignty are restored.

The military occupation is costing about $1 billion a week – or roughly $50 billion for the year. That's a lot of money – nearly as much as all veterans' benefits ($58 billion), not quite twice the federal budget for public education ($34 billion), more than three times the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget ($15 billion) and 10 times the FBI's budget ($5 billion). That's how much the Iraq war is costing – on top of the nearly $400 billion defense budget.

How much money is $50 billion? Let's be cynical and assume the war was about oil. Since gasoline is our nation's main use of oil, let's put the burden of paying for the war on drivers. Americans consume 372 million gallons of gas daily. To pay that $1 billion a week would require a gas tax of 43 cents a gallon. To pay the entire $87 billion the president requested would demand a gas tax of 64 cents a gallon.

Historically, wars have been very expensive and usually force the imposition of new taxes to pay for them, such as the income tax, first used in the Civil War. Not paying for wars can have devastating financial consequences. Lyndon Johnson's "guns-and-butter" approach to Vietnam burdened the country with years of disastrous inflation.

So what is President Bush proposing?


Instead, he will increase the government's deficit to more than $500 billion this fiscal year, a record. And all of it will be repaid later. (Currently, we pay $171 billion in interest on the debt, a sum that will rise to more than $250 billion in five years.) I don't like the concept of paying additional taxes any more than the next person, but I dislike the idea of shoving the burden on to my children even more.

If Mr. Bush won't be fiscally responsible, Congress should.

As a first step, Congress should suspend or repeal the tax cut for taxpayers earning more than $200,000. That will raise many billions and at least provide a sense of sacrifice by those most able to afford it.

Second, Congress should raise the gas tax – not 38 cents but at least 5 cents or 10 cents a gallon, with future automatic increases. Call it the "defeat Osama bin Laden victory fund," dedicated to reducing American dependence on imported oil by encouraging more efficient driving.

Third, Congress should insist on strict financial accounting and openness in contracts to ensure the money is spent honestly and well. Contracts granted without bidding to Halliburton don't inspire confidence in the American overseers in Iraq. Nor does Joe Allbaugh's recent establishment of a consulting firm to help companies get an inside edge in obtaining Iraqi contracts; Mr. Allbaugh managed Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign and recently headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Reconstructing Iraq will be a long and expensive process. Restructuring Germany and Japan took a decade, and that was without a hostile and armed populace. Mr. Bush's request for $87 billion won't be his last request.

The only sacrifices Mr. Bush has asked for are from our children and the more than 300 American servicemen and servicewomen who have died in Iraq. And that isn't right.

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