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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

White House Watch: Americans now see costs of war more clearly

WASHINGTON - Bit by bit, we're learning what President Bush meant when he forgot to tell us about “sacrifice.”

For weeks many have pondered why, with a war on terrorism under way and a looming war against Iraq, there have been few stirring words from the White House on what each of us is called to do in this time of peril.

For those in the military, of course, there is no doubt. They are called to lay their lives on the line for their country. We must never forget that. Already thousands in the military have made less final but painful sacrifices - deployment overseas under hardship conditions, absence from home and family, delayed careers, or personal obligations put on hold.

For the rest of us, it's been unclear until now. Yes, there was passage of the Patriot Act, which meant less privacy, more government intrusion, an ominous chipping away of freedoms.

But now we're seeing the costs more clearly, aside from the foreign policy implications that may haunt us for years to come.

Gasoline prices have risen dramatically. For people whose budgets are calculated closely to their weekly take-home pay (most of us) this is a burden. Some people have been paying 20 cents more a gallon in recent days, and nobody is predicting a decline in prices at the pump anytime soon.

Heating prices are through the roof, even insulated ones. Many, many Americans have had the breath knocked out of them by stratospheric bills, partly because of the cold weather and partly because oil is much costlier - at $40 a barrel, a 12-year high, as war drums beat. And we're talking hundreds of dollars per family in many parts of the country.

Now we see that those leaks from aghast bureaucrats over the cost of a war with Iraq were on the conservative side.

When Turkey and the United States finally agreed that $15 billion would be the price for Turkish cooperation with a war against Iraq, the nation's governors were in town. They were storming the White House (politely, of course) and stalking the halls of Congress in pursuit of one thing - money. Thus, not surprisingly, it was galling to them to hear that their requests for money to keep from cutting vital education programs were denied but Turkey's request was not. What country, the governors wondered, would be next at the trough?

Congress has been lagging in pushing the administration to estimate what the war will cost. In the last Gulf War, we passed the hat and most of the $61 billion price tag was forked over by allies.

That will not happen this time. Aside from the nastiness coming from the French and the Germans and the wimpiness of the United Nations, there simply is not the money available around the globe as there was 12 years ago. This time, we will provide the military, the firepower, the planes, the cleanup, the peacekeepers, the post-war leadership - and pay for it all, notwithstanding the “coalition of the willing.” (Who makes up these names?)

Merits of war aside the sheer cost of this war when the U.S. economy is in trouble is daunting. There are some estimates that the cost could range from $85 billion, not counting the bribes to allies, to as high as $150 billion for the war and the after-war scenario. If occupation lasts longer than six months, the cost will soar higher. (We are still in Bosnia. We are still in Afghanistan.)

To put that $100 billion-plus figure in context, the entire budget for the Pentagon and defense is $387 billion. The budget shortfall for all the 50 states, which are madly cutting after-school programs, health benefits for seniors, highway projects, etc., could be as high as $88 billion.

Also, economists are beginning to say flatly that unlike previous wars, most notably World War II, there is unlikely to be a boost to the economy from a second war against Iraq. Some even say direly that it will deepen the recession.

It is not unpatriotic or “anti-Bush” to raise this issue. It's head-in-the-sand delusionary nonsense not to think all this through. Families don't make huge expenditures without figuring out where the money will come from unless they're courting bankruptcy. And even under the most optimistic assumptions, this war will cost each family at least $1,000.

Mr. Bush's budget disingenuously mentioned nothing about war with Iraq. Using all honorable measures to try to convince others of the righteousness of your cause is fine. Hiding the facts in a democracy is not fine.



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