Last week’s edition of The Washington Post’s “Fine Print” column used the fiscal-cliff crisis and related debt debate to launch fresh attacks on the Bush administration, specifically that “borrowing to pay for the war helped lead to the current fiscal crisis.” The piece noted that the debt-limit statute was “born out of the need to pay for government spending from our entrance into World War I” and that “George W. Bush’s White House didn’t consider such an issue when it launched its war on terrorism…or undertook the more costly invasion of Iraq in 2003.” The piece went on to detail war-related tax increases under Wilson, FDR, Truman and LBJ.
Although the piece has a point—shared contributions and shared sacrifice in a time of war make political and fiscal sense—it misjudges certain issues related to waging war and raising revenue, leaves out some important items about America’s post-World War I finances and is flat wrong on some specifics.
To be sure, Bush made mistakes in prosecuting the war. All wartime presidents do. That includes Madison’s entry into, and prosecution of, an arguably-unnecessary war with the British Empire in 1812; Lincoln’s choice of commanders in the early phases of the Civil War; McKinley’s occupation of the Philippines; Wilson’s foolish attempt to keep up the pretense of being neutral while bankrolling the belligerents; FDR’s naiveté with Tokyo before the war and with Moscow during the war; the Truman administration’s disastrous “defense perimeter” green light before the communists crossed the 38th Parallel and decision to wage a “police action” after the communists came across; LBJ’s doomed incrementalism in, and micromanagement of, Vietnam; Nixon’s pursuit not of victory but of “peace with honor”; and the elder Bush’s decision to cut short the ground war against Saddam Hussein.
For his part, the younger Bush made at least three war-related missteps:
First, by not asking for a full-fledged declaration of war against nations that harbor or fund terrorist groups with a record of attacking U.S. targets, he limited his freedom of action. Such a declaration would have enfolded the major sources of global terrorism (e.g. Taliban Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria); put others that dealt in the terror trade on notice (e.g. Libya, Pakistan, North Korea); and framed the war very clearly as a campaign of campaigns against terrorists with a global presence, rather than separate conflicts, each needing its own justification.
Second, by not going heavy into Iraq, a postwar insurgency became more likely. The rationale that a lighter footprint would be better suited to a limited war focused on regime change may have made sense on paper. But a force built to move fast proved insufficient for occupation and reconstruction. Prewar assessments about the need for a large force for postwar stabilization made good sense, were based on lessons learned from the Gulf War and other post-Vietnam interventions, and would have given theater commanders an array of tools to smother what eventually became a bloody and costly postwar war.
Third, by not finding a funding mechanism for the war—whether special war bonds or a special war tax—Bush exposed himself to political attack and the country to fiscal dangers. Indeed, many observers worried at the onset of hostilities about the prudence of waging war with a credit card. In October 2001, for example, I noted, quizzically, that “Uncle Sam doesn’t want us to conserve and save, but to consume and spend. The president urges us to ‘visit Disney World and America’s other vacation spots.’ An array of wartime tax cuts is in the works to prime the pump of American consumerism…it seems there’s very little the average American can do or sacrifice to help Uncle Sam ‘Beat bin Laden’ or ‘Tame the Taliban,’ to borrow the lingo of WWII.”
All that said, Bush deserves credit for recognizing something that so many people, even more than a decade later, fail to grasp, namely, that 9/11 altered the very DNA of American national-security strategy. Accordingly, his post-9/11 policies put America on the offensive and the enemy on its heels, shifted the battle-front back to foreign shores, and protected our country from follow-on attacks.
The operative phrase in that last sentence is “our country.” The “Fine Print” column’s comment about “George W. Bush’s White House” and “its war on terrorism” reflects a sad and cynical view we’ve become accustomed to in the past decade. In truth, this wasn’t Bush’s war—just as Yemen and Pakistan aren’t Obama’s war, Vietnam wasn’t LBJ’s, and Korea wasn’t Truman’s. These are America’s wars. America was attacked on 9/11. And the war that ensued was then—and remains now—America’s to wage.
As to places where the “Fine Print” column is deliberately vague or flat-out wrong: First, it fails to a note that although Wilson may have tried to pay for the Great War with taxes and bonds, the war still left behind a fiscal mess. Upon entering office, President Harding lamented the war’s “delirium of expenditure” and “unspeakable waste.” In other words, wars are always costly, destructive and wasteful. The costliness of war is one reason why it is to be prevented, if at all possible. (The best way to do that is through overwhelming deterrent strength—something U.S. policymakers have forgotten in recent years. But that’s a subject for another essay.) Rare is a conflict like the Persian Gulf War, which was largely bankrolled by global funders.
That brings us to a second problem. The column suggests that George H.W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes (which came in June 1990) was somehow related to the need for revenue for Operation Desert Storm (which began in January 1991).
And third, the column notes that the younger Bush was “supported by a GOP-led House and Senate from 2001 through 2006.” In fact, the Democrats controlled the Senate from mid-2001 until January 3, 2003. In other words, all fiscal decisions during that period were, by definition, bipartisan.
Speaking of fiscal decisions, the column’s implication that the fiscal woes we face are due to the $1.3-trillion spent on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond ignores common sense and simple arithmetic. If we had never gone to war after 9/11, we would still have about $15 trillion in debt today—rather than about $16 trillion—thanks largely to unchecked entitlement spending, as well as an $800-billion stimulus and a $1-trillion takeover of health care.
Just like the war, by the way, all of these items are being charged to the nation’s credit card.
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