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Chickenhawks and Cheapskates

May 26, 2014

In December 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lectured American troops worried about vital equipment shortages plaguing U.S. combat forces in Iraq. "You go to war with the army you have," Rumsfeld pontificated, "not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
That was a particularly galling statement for Rumsfeld of all people to make. After all, George W. Bush's Pentagon boss hadn't just contemplated slashing two Army divisions and two aircraft carriers mere weeks before the September 11 attacks and later mocked top Army General Eric Shinseki for presciently warning in early 2003 that the looming occupation of Iraq would require "several hundred thousand soldiers." As it turns out, the Bush administration Rumsfeld represented and its Republican allies in Congress ignored two other truisms of waging war:

  • You pay for the wars you fight.
  • And when their service is over, you take care of the men and women who fought, suffered and died for the United States of America.

Yet at no point after the slaughter of 3,000 people on 9/11 did Republicans call for even one penny in new tax revenue to pay the bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may ultimately cost $6 trillion. As for the 2.6 million men and women who have worn the uniform since 9/11, many of the same GOP voices now demanding defense spending hikes voted to slash veterans' health care and filibustered increased VA funding just three months ago.
To be sure, the Chickenhawks and Deficit Hawks who routinely boast they most "support the troops" have an appalling way of showing it. By 2020, the twin wars and twin Bush tax cuts they so ardently advocated will have drained roughly $10 trillion from the United States Treasury.
Here's how that grim mixture of red blood and red ink came to pass.
By 2011, the Congressional Research Services put the price tag on America's post-9/11 wars at $1.28 trillion. A 2013 Harvard study estimated that the total cost to the U.S. Treasury so far for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had reached $2 trillion. In keeping with another analysis from researchers at Brown University, the Harvard team forecast that in the years to come, the total figure including veterans' pensions and health care could balloon to as much as $6 trillion. As the Washington Post noted:

Spending borrowed money to pay for the wars has also made them more expensive, the study noted. The conflicts have added $2 trillion to America's debt, representing roughly 20 percent of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012.

That's because after September 11, President Bush didn't follow FDR's example and ask Americans to pay higher taxes to defeat Al Qaeda. Instead, Bush cut them.
In the summer of 2001, as you'll recall, Bush signed his $1.4 trillion tax cut into law. But even as the World Trade Center site was still smoldering, Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks told the American people not to sacrifice but to go shopping and get down to Disney World. And in 2003, George W. Bush became the first modern president to cut taxes during wartime. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress passed a second round of cuts forecast to cost another $550 billion over the ensuing decade. (In 2009, Barack Obama became the second tax-cutting commander in chief with his stimulus program that delivered the largest two-year tax cut in American history.) As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) previously explained in 2008 and 2011, the Bush tax cuts accounted for about half the deficits during his tenure and, if made permanent (as most ultimately were by President Obama), would produce more red ink than Iraq, Afghanistan, TARP and the recession combined.

And when most of the Bush wartime tax cuts were made permanent as part of the 2013 "fiscal cliff" deal, President Obama and Congress guaranteed that the hemorrhaging of red ink would continue for years to come. The American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA), which ended the fiscal cliff stand-off in January 2013, raised income and capital gains taxes on households earning over $450,000 a year, generating an estimated $770 billion over a decade. But the rest of the Bush tax cuts--over $3 trillion worth--were made perpetual. As the Washington Post calculated last September:

Despite multiple deficit-reduction deals during the past three years, the national debt is projected to swell to 100 percent of the economy by 2038, due primarily to the enormous cost of caring for an aging society. Making matters worse: tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans made permanent during last year's fiscal cliff showdown. If the tax cuts had been allowed to expire, projections showed the debt dropping to 52 percent of GDP during the next 25 years.

So much for "tax cuts pay for themselves."
But in the years ahead, another area of federal spending--taking care of our veterans who fought the nation's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--will put additional stress on the federal budget, too. . Last year, Harvard researcher and veterans affairs expert Linda J. Bilmes explained why:

"Historically, the bill for these costs has come due many decades later," the report says, noting that the peak disbursement of disability payments for America's warriors in the last century came decades after the conflicts ended. "Payments to Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans are still climbing."

Or as Alec MacGillis explained in The New Republic, "Put simply: when you go to war, you get more wounded veterans."
Make that a lot more. Over 2.5 million Americans have served since 9/11. According to polling from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half "struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service." While 6,800 service men and service women died in Iraq and Afghanistan, another 51,000 were wounded. By 2013, over 270,000 were being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With ever-improving battlefield medical care saving more and more lives, the wounded who survive suffer from the most serious injuries. And with the IED the main weapon of the enemy, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are now horribly frequent. Over 30,000 were diagnosed by 2011.

While the VA has succeeded in reducing its backlog of claims by about half from 611,000 since last year, the caseload remains daunting. As the Washington Post recently detailed:

The longest stretch of fighting in American history is producing disability claims at rates that surpass those of any of the country's previous wars. Nearly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing for these benefits when they leave the military -- a flood of claims that has overwhelmed the VA and generated a backlog of 300,000 cases stuck in processing for more than 125 days. Some have languished for more than a year.

That's why the total budget for the VA has tripled between since 2001 (and still appears not be enough). But as Paul Waldman showed in the chart below, the growth in VA funding wasn't steady. The biggest jump in the VA budget didn't come until after the Iraq "surge," until after the Walter Reed Army Medical Center crisis of 2007 and until after Barack Obama took the oath of office.

And as Waldman also emphasized, the current scandal over secret VA waiting lists "isn't about the quality of care." As study after study has repeatedly shown, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its network of 1,700 facilities that serve 8 million veterans a year is extremely popular, enjoys higher client satisfaction than private hospitals or Medicare and delivers care at least as good--and at lower cost--than the private sector. As Time recently explained ("It's Time for Some Perspective on the VA"):

The high-profile investigation into wait-times at VA facilities masks the good job most of its 230,000 daily visitors believes the agency is doing...
"Over the past two weeks, the American Legion has received over 500 calls, emails, and online contacts from veterans struggling with the healthcare system nationwide," Daniel Dellinger, the Legion's national commander, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday. Over that same period, the VA saw a total of about 3.2 million patients. That works out to a complaint rate of 0.015%. Including a wider date range drops that share even lower.

But while grandstanding Republican leaders like Eric Cantor ("it is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight") is rightly outraged at the recent revelations regarding those phony waiting lists and potentially avoidable deaths at some VA hospitals, their Republican Party has a proven record of making things worse for veterans and their families. The 2012 version of Paul Ryan's House GOP budget (which garnered the support of 95 percent of Congressional Republicans) called for spending 13 percent less than the White House proposal. As the Veterans of Modern Warfare (VMW) cautioned, the care of 1.3 million vets was at risk because Ryan's plan "save $6 billion annually in VA health care costs by cancelling enrollment of any veteran who doesn't have a service-related medical condition and is not poor." As Gene Murphy, director of the South Dakota Disabled American Veterans, put it at the time:

"If they go and approve this, we will have some of the smaller VA facilities closing down in rural states. Then you're going to put these veterans...into the Medicare and Medicaid programs."

The indignities don't end there. While the VA escaped largely unscathed from the budget sequestration process, the January 2014 Ryan-Murray deal cut the pension benefits of 90 percent of military veterans. Adding insult to injury, GOP-led cuts to food stamps impacted 900,000 veterans, while the refusal of 24 Republican-controlled states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has left an estimated 258,000 vets needlessly without coverage. Unless Congress acts soon, a breakthrough pilot project assisting veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries will come to an end. And now, with the chronically underfunded and overstretched Veterans Affairs Department under the microscope, some Republicans are once again proposing the one reform certain to make the situation worse: privatizing veterans' health care.
Back in February, 41 Republican Senators filibustered a Democratic bill designed to enhance health, education and job-training programs for the nation's 22 million veterans. Why?

Republicans complained that the bill was too expensive. And they were upset that Majority Leader Harry Reid prevented a vote on a GOP amendment cutting the bill and adding sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Which brings us full circle. Whether it's returning to a Cold War footing versus Russia in Eastern Europe or launching a preventive war against the Iranian nuclear program, the folks who brought you the war in Iraq are getting the band back together.
To be sure, the threats from Republican leaders like Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to blow up the delicate negotiations with Tehran make war much more likely. Aided by many Democrats, demands for Congress to participate in the deal-making, increase current sanctions and even mandate U.S. support for unilateral Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear targets leave little hope for a peaceful resolution. (For more on the possible costs of a conflict Robert Gates and Michael Hayden warned would be "disastrous," visit here.)
Bill Kristol, one of the original cheerleaders for regime change in Iraq, has only one response for Americans opposed to launching a preventive war against Iran, bombing Syria and committing U.S. resources to regions historically within Russia's sphere of influence. "War-weariness," he charged, is not an excuse.

Are Americans today war-weary? Sure. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been frustrating and tiring. Are Americans today unusually war-weary? No. They were wearier after the much larger and even more frustrating conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. And even though the two world wars of the last century had more satisfactory outcomes, their magnitude was such that they couldn't help but induce a significant sense of war-weariness. And history shows that they did.
So American war-weariness isn't new. Using it as an excuse to avoid maintaining our defenses or shouldering our responsibilities isn't new, either. But that doesn't make it admirable.

But Americans aren't suffering from war-weariness as much as fiasco fatigue. Egged on by the likes of Kristol, George Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Donald Rumsfeld and so many more of their ilk, Americans waged war on Iraq in one of the greatest national security and foreign policy blunders of this or any other era. They've seen the toll it has taken on our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen and National Guard. They understand the suffering and sacrifice of their families. And they can count up the trillions of dollars run up on the national credit card.

U.S. defense spending, impact of sequestration.

Meanwhile in Congress, the same Republicans accusing President Obama of every sin in the book over his administration's handling of the VA revelations have another cause. Despite having voted overwhelmingly for the 2011 Budget Control Act, about which House Speaker John Boehner crowed, "I got 98 percent of what I wanted," Republicans decry the defense spending caps the BCA's sequestration put in place. And on Thursday, the House approved a $601 billion defense appropriation that rejected many of the cost-saving proposals that Secretary Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed. The A10 "Warthog," the U-2 spy plane and several Navy cruisers the Pentagon sought to ax are back. While Armed Service Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) proclaimed, "We had to make too many cuts, too many hard trade-offs, and too many reductions to bring this bill in with $30 billion less than we gave DoD last year," Democratic Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) lamented, "We ducked every single one of them."

"We are going to have substantially less money over the next 10 years for defense than we thought," he said.
"How are we going to restructure our defense plans to deal with the fact? ... The answer in this bill is we're not going to deal with it this year. We're going to hope things get better and maybe deal with it next year."

There's no mystery as to how congressional Republicans want to deal with the Pentagon's budget caps: the same way they always do. They'll just get rid of them and raise defense outlays, either by slashing non-defense discretionary spending (already at a 50-year low as a percentage of the U.S. economy) or by running bigger deficits. They will cry, as Donald Rumsfeld once sneered, "Henny penny, the sky is falling." But what conservatives won't do is raise taxes to pay for either a bigger military or to care for those who previously served in it.
That, as Rumsfeld might also say, is "a known known." Because as their recent history sadly shows, when Republicans make war and make promises, they only end up making more debt and more wounded warriors.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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