Some of the politicians who propose withdrawing our troops from Iraq have an ulterior motive. They want to stop spending money on the military so they can start spending it on social programs.
If they succeed, an army of social workers may prove the only force in the world capable of beating America's military. Funding that "army" is a revival of the "peace dividend" doctrine that brought us a hollowed-out military during the Clinton administration.
Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, has claimed first dibs on the money to create a new $6-billion-a-year program against urban poverty "funded by savings from ending the Iraq war." Fellow presidential candidate John Edwards certainly will want a chunk, considering that his central theme is a mega-billion-dollar expansion of the "War on Poverty."
Congress is already on a spending spree. During the first six months of the new majority, the House and the Senate approved almost $200 billion in new spending, mostly to be financed with tax increases, with a little left over to lower the deficit. But raising taxes carries political risks, so tapping a "peace dividend" is an alternative justification for higher spending. It's a tempting target, because the five-year cost of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is officially calculated at $758 billion.
Bill Clinton pushed this argument when running for president, telling a 1991 Georgetown University audience, "With the dwindling Soviet threat, we can cut defense spending by over a third by 1997.... The American people have earned this peace dividend... and they are entitled to have the dividend reinvested in their future."
Today's lengthy troop deployments are one legacy of those cuts. Dropping the Army from 18 divisions to 10 forced each remaining soldier to spend more time overseas and less at home. It would be worse if Congress hadn't insisted on increased defense spending in the late Clinton years, followed by a further buildup under President George W. Bush.
But our military's needs won't end even if we reduce our activity in Iraq. Before the harsh desert environment took its toll on equipment and weapons, our inventory was aging. That's part of the reason the Heritage Foundation and many others urge a permanent defense budget commitment of 4 percent of gross domestic product (up from today's 3.9 percent).
This "4 Percent for Freedom" goal would conflict, obviously, with the social spending buildup leading Democrats want to finance partly by abandoning the mission in Iraq. It also would clash with the need to reduce federal deficits and balance the budget. But we can't allow our security needs to take second place.
The era of big government never ended. Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Republicans didn't end big government while they ran Congress, and the new Democrat majority certainly won't.
This year alone Congress has ramped up spending. It has tacked $40 billion on to Mr. Bush's appropriations proposal, passed five-year plans to spend an extra $23 billion for homeland security, spent $9 billion more on water resources, another $7 billion on transportation security, and a farm bill adding $17 billion.
A pending expansion of government-paid health care ("for the kids") will cost at least $71 billion over 10 years, enlarging the SCHIP "children's health" plans to provide government-paid health care for households making more than $80,000 per year — 4 times the poverty level. The costs of the Senate-passed energy bill still haven't been calculated — but expect it to push gasoline prices to $3.79 a gallon by next year, according to a Heritage Foundation report.
Tapping into a "peace dividend" will be an attractive political excuse to pay for these and more big-government plans — telling voters it's no pain, only gain. Our national defense could suffer from it.
Mr. Bush's opposition is almost the only political barrier. His political capital is low, but Congress' is even lower. Liberal use of a veto is the only way to combat this liberal big spending.
Ernest Istook is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He served 14 years as a U.S. congressman from Oklahoma.
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