President Bush's request for $87 billion dollars in additional funding to fight the war in Iraq could push the federal budget deficit above the $550 billion mark, raising serious questions about the administration's decision to simultaneously cut taxes and finance massive reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Afraid to be tagged as unpatriotic, Democrats have offered very little opposition to the war on terror, but Bush's $87 billion afterthought is sufficiently huge to generate some opposition. Last week, John Kerry asked why we were opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in the United States. Loud claps of applause ensued. Expect more rhetoric of the guns-and-butter variety, as well as comparisons to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose decision to funnel millions into social spending while waging a costly war in Vietnam resulted in rampant inflation.
Of course, a more appropriate comparison might be to Ronald Reagan, whose 1981 tax cuts were the engine that hauled along nearly a decade of sustained growth and prosperity. At the same time, Reagan ratcheted up the arms race in an attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union. All the while he refused to raise taxes for fear that if the American people knew their tax money was intensifying the cold war they might withdraw their support. Instead, Reagan bribed America with tax cuts and frightened the people into believing in the godless "commies" and their evil empire. Future generations were left to deal with his deficits. Most of us now agree that a bit of inflation was a small price to pay for bringing an end to the cold war. History has been less kind to Johnson, largely because Vietnam is not so fondly remembered.
The obvious lesson: Scare the American people. Keep them in a state of paranoia like Reagan did. Make the threat - be it communists, terrorists, etc. - feel more immediate than the vague concept of future deficits. Reagan was a master of paranoid politics. In many respects, he employed a variety of techniques first used by President Harry S. Truman, who once ominously warned voters that, "There is a power so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it." Truman's scare tactics were so successful they united support for increased defense spending and led to the implementation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
If the Bush administration is to achieve similar success it will have to convince the American people that our presence in Iraq is a necessity, not a choice. There is a good argument to be made here. The Middle East is an incubator of terrorism. We've been trying to curb the fanaticism for nearly five years, but have made no appreciable progress. Tyranny, misery and anti-Western sentiments continue to replicate virus-like throughout the region. We have an historic opportunity to make the civilized world safe from this sort of fanaticism and to help nurture a sense of future possibilities in the Middle East. (A sense of future possibilities will go a long way toward ending suicide bombings.) It's a gamble, but one that should be taken to make the world a safer place.
That's a worthy foreign-policy goal on par with rebuilding Europe and bringing down the Soviet threat. Certainly worth a little inflation down the road, wouldn't you think?