- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

“This may not be Vietnam, but boy it sure smells like it. And every time I see these bills coming down for the money, it’s costing like Vietnam too.” So said Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin on the Senate floor recently.

To pay and supply U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then set those countries more firmly on their feet by rebuilding physical facilities, training security forces, and launching economic initiatives, President Bush has requested $87 billion in 2004 spending. That’s a lot of money.

But contrary to what Mr. Harkin says, it’s nothing like Vietnam-era costs. During an average year of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military effort consumed around 10 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product. And we spent around 14 percent of GDP annually to defend our country during the Korean War. Amidst World War II, defense spending ate up fully 38 percent of our national output.

Compare those figures to today’s effort for the War on Terror. In 2004, total defense spending will amount to just 4 percent of GDP. That doesn’t even vaguely resemble Vietnam.

And the truth is, a good chunk of the $87 billion the president has requested would be spent even if all our troops were back at their home bases. The 140,000 soldiers in Iraq and the several thousand more in Afghanistan are not going to be demobilized after their work is done. They are going to head back to North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, New York, Georgia, and elsewhere, where they will draw salaries, fire off rounds at training ranges, and put mileage on their vehicles. Sure, they’re pulling extra combat pay now, and operating at a higher intensity. But they are also honing themselves into a better fighting force as they bring the war on terror to our enemies in their own backyards.

A further truth is that some of today’s military spending is catch-up for the 1990s, when the administration and Congress slashed the defense budget to its lowest level in three generations, took a holiday on procurement of new equipment, and chopped training hours and supply purchases. In the Balkans, we nearly ran out of cruise missiles and bombs. In Iraq this yea r— where I was an embedded reporter — many of the Humvees, helicopters, and airplanes transporting American forces were much older than the men guiding them.

I watched an artillery crew of the 82nd Airborne pull 105mm artillery shells out of crates stamped with the date of manufacture: “May 1970.” In about one shell out of every three, the 33-year-old powder bags had dry-rotted, spilling the propellant onto the sand and making the rounds useless.

Three quarters of the president’s spending request will go to our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it will buy new Humvees, better body armor, and other equipment and supplies our soldiers need to hunt down terrorists.

The other $20 billion will go to help rebuild Iraq: $5 billion to set up an Iraqi army and larger police force, $15 billion to rebuild facilities providing electricity, water and sewers, communication and transport.

Those are no mean sums. But they need to be kept in perspective. Consider that we Americans will spend about $37 billion in 2004 on salty snacks. We’ll collectively spend $31 billion on candy.

Can we afford $20 billion to get a free Iraq on its feet in 2004? We might better ask whether we can afford not to.

The American patriot Thomas Paine once said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” Today, more than 100,000 American soldiers are doing the dirty work of stabilizing and reforming the most dangerous portion of the globe, so our children may have peace. My own observations in Iraq, recent polling there by the American Enterprise (the magazine I edit) and other organizations like Gallup, plus my continuing exchanges with the military men and women who are running the country, convince me they are making real progress — contrary to the negativity of much reporting.

In most of the country outside the Sunni triangle (where Saddam’s collaborators are howling against the loss of their whip hand) everyday Iraqis are grateful the U.S. has put their nation on a new course. Not too far down the road, today’s drumbeat about America’s failure to bring instant recovery to Iraq may look quite rash.

The critics need to have some faith in the Iraqi people, to show a little patience with the dedicated U.S. military and civilian administrators who are only a few months into their jobs, and stop blowing minor complaints from each Iraqi extremist-faction-of-the-week into a full-fledged indictment of America’s stabilizing presence.

If we will do that, 2004’s $87 billion investment in the War on Terror will look to future Americans like a very wise downpayment on peace. Every bit as satisfying as a salty snack or piece of sweet candy.

Karl Zinsmeister is author of the new book “Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq,” just out from St. Martin’s Press. He is editor in chief of the American Enterprise magazine.

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