Who’s going to pay for the president's war against the Islamic State?

Budget debates on Capitol Hill have been extraordinarily contentious in recent years. Sooner rather than later, Congress needs to come to terms on how to pay for this war.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on 'The ISIS Threat: Weighing the Obama Administration's Response' on Capitol Hill in Washington Sept. 18, 2014. In all the discussion about airstrikes against the Islamic State, there's been little talk about how to pay for it.

Andrew Sullivan points out that Republicans, or anyone for that matter, don’t seem to be all that concerned with how we’re going to pay for the president’s war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

It’s been a remarkable aspect of the foreign policy “debate” over the last month that I haven’t heard a single leading Republican express misgivings about a new Iraq war’s impact on fiscal policy. And yet, for a few years now, we have been subjected to endless drama about the mounting debt when it comes to anything the government wants to do. Cost was one (ludicrous) reason to oppose Obamacare; it’s behind cutting off 3 million long-term unemployed from any benefits; it has led to proposals to turn Medicare into a premium support system and for cutting social security. Some of this fiscal vigilance I find useful – if it weren’t so transparently a way to dodge GOP responsibility for the debt and to blame Obama for all of it and if it weren’t raised as a matter of urgency when the world economy was deeply depressed (the one time when fiscal lenience is warranted). But it is hard to resist the conclusion, after the last few weeks, that it’s all a self-serving charade.

I mean: where are the fiscal conservatives now? The ISIS campaign is utterly amorphous and open-ended at this point – exactly the kind of potentially crippling government program Republicans usually want to slash. It could last more than three years (and that’s what they’re saying at then outset); the cost is estimated by some to be around $15 billion a year, but no one really knows. The last phase of the same war cost, when all was said and done, something close to $1.5 trillion – and our current travails prove that this was one government program that clearly failed to achieve its core original objectives, and vastly exceeded its original projected costs.

If this were a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure project for the homeland, we’d be having hearing after hearing on how ineffective and crony-ridden it is; there would be government reports on its cost-benefit balance; there would be calls to end it tout court.But a massive government program that can be seen as a form of welfare dependency for the actual countries – Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kurdistan – facing the crisis gets almost no scrutiny at all. And what scrutiny it gets is entirely due to partisanship and the desire to portray this president as effectively useless.

To be fair, the issue of paying for the president’s war isn’t necessarily one that needs to be answered immediately. We’re not talking about anything on the scale of the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars, at least not yet, and it seems apparent that the Pentagon should be able to pay for ongoing operations out of its regular operating budget for the time being. Indeed, attacks that we’ve seen launched to date have, at least in some sense, already been paid for to the extent that they involve planes, bombs, and missiles, along with their related support materials, that have already been paid for. The Pentagon would be spending the same amount on this material, and on the salaries of the pilots and support personnel involved regardless of whether or not we were attacking Syria so they are essentially sunk costs that have already been paid for. The fiscal questions will come as the campaign goes on and we need to replace things like bombs and missiles with new weapons purchased from defense contractors, and if (and when?) the war itself expands and requires a greater American commitment, which seems inevitable. At least for the time being, though, the fiscal issues that Sullivan raises are not quite as immediate as the myriad of other issues that the president’s war raises.

Notwithstanding that qualification, though, Sullivan raises a valid point here. For the past two months or so since the president began air strikes against IS, we’ve seen a myriad of criticisms of the president’s policy from the right. Some of these critics have argued that the president isn’t doing enough, some have argued that he’s doing too much or that certain elements of the policy, such as arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, can’t possibly work. Other Republicans, and most especially the House and Senate leadership, have been largely supportive of the president’s policy and worked together with Democrats to push forward last week’s vote on authorizing to fund the “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Nowhere in any of this discussion, though, has there been any talk about the fiscal issues related to the strategy that the president wants to pursue against IS. While the plan currently limits American involvement to airstrikes, we’ve already seen comments from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Army chief of staff that ground forces might be necessary at some point. The president’s own advisers have already said that the campaign against IS could take years, even if we don’t suffer any setbacks. At the very least, this suggests that, likely sooner rather than later, we’re going to have to deal with  the question of how to pay for this war, a question that becomes even more important in an era where there seems to be very little room for political consensus on budget issues. At least to some extent, we would expect to see some of these questions answered when the president submits his Fiscal Year 2016 budget next year, or when Congress deals with the FY 2015 budget, which was basically delayed until December, thanks to a continuing resolution. However, it’s likely that the Pentagon may need some form of stopgap authorization for additional funds before that budget is approved. At that point, choices will need to be made about where to get the money from or whether to allow the additional spending to just be financed by debt.

The last time we went to war, there was almost no discussion in Congress about how we were going to pay for it. Indeed, the issue seems to have not occurred to anyone in the White House or Congress. Rather than raising taxes, as we have in past wars, we cut taxes and did nothing to cut spending in any other part of the budget, which went a long way toward raising the budget deficit well after President Bush left office. As we sit here today, it doesn’t seem as though the campaign against IS is going to reach the level of the Iraq War or the Afghanistan War, although it remains within the realm of possibility that future escalations could turn it into something like those wars. Before we reach that point, and given the fact that budget debates on Capitol Hill have been extraordinarily contentious in recent years, we ought to have at least some idea of how we’re going to pay for that conflict, because the way we did it last time was pretty much the worst way possible.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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