Budget's Missing Gorilla

Amazingly, a possible war with Iraq deserves not even an asterisk in President Bush's 13-pound budget for the next fiscal year.

While Mr. Bush's indisputable goal is to disarm Saddam Hussein and beat back terrorists, the Pentagon characterizes the fiscal outline as a "peacetime budget." The budget contains no cost estimate of a war in Iraq, nor a request to pay for a military engagement already over a year old: Afghanistan.

It may be unrealistic to expect a budget document to account for a military conflict of unknown length, a war that might yet be avoided. And the White House promises it will act quickly and submit a supplemental budget should it come to combat. It is also waiting to see whether it should wrap in Afghanistan costs with that "supplemental."

Yet the president should have at least noted in his budget forward that a war with Iraq could significantly worsen the federal budget deficit. Unfortunately, this omission points to a worrisome trend of obfuscation about the long-term burden of an Iraqi war, and especially its complex aftermath.

This clouding characterizes the overall Bush budget, which switches from 10-year to five-year projections on deficits and economic growth. Surely, the administration can show what the fiscal and economic effects of its "out-year" costs might be.

And when will Americans get to see the whole financial picture on a war with Iraq and the cost estimates of a war on terrorism? If economists at Washington's think tanks can run the numbers and share them, the White House can, too.

The president shouldn't wait until the first bomb drops on Baghdad to lay a fiscal bombshell on taxpayers. And it's still not clear what the president's goal is for this war. Disarmament only? Or a long-term role in democratizing Iraq. (In postwar Japan, the occupation lasted over six years.)

The public deserves what this president is famous for: straight talk.

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