The Magazine

All Hat and No Cattle

From the May 17, 2004 issue: Why, despite everything, Bush should win.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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The tax cuts have done their work. But rather than turn to the problem created by a budget deficit that is approaching an unsustainable 5 percent of GDP, and this before the baby boom generation has begun to claim its Social Security benefits, Bush continues to increase spending and press for still more tax cuts. True, he occasionally threatens to rein in spending by vetoing Congress's most outrageous spending bills, but all the while the cap has remained firmly screwed onto his veto pen. The time is long past when anyone believed that the tax cuts would be self-financing, or had any hopes that the president's proposed budget had any chance of being adopted. Unless the president has signed on to the theory that deficits don't matter, his talk about cutting the deficit in half is nothing more than that--the talk of a man with a large hat and a very small herd.

Which brings us back to Iraq, and the question of whether resolute rhetoric can carry the day in the war on terror. It turns out that a few generals were right, and that the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz duo was wrong about the number of troops needed to eliminate resistance in Iraq so that reconstruction might proceed. This magazine has long argued that the military needs more money and more troops. No one any longer denies that is the case. For one thing, there are not enough boots on the ground in Iraq, where we can field no more than 20,000 fighters at any one time. For another, after scraping up soldiers from around the world and from behind desks, the Defense Department has left us vulnerable to the lunatics who run North Korea, and to any other regime that, sensing our lack of resolve in Iraq, decides that now is the time to strike against American interests. That very much includes China, should it decide to assert its title to Taiwan while it believes our military is too thinly spread around the world to intervene.

The army, which had 18 active-duty divisions (about 700,000 troops) in 1991, now has only 10 divisions (and about 490,000 troops). Which puts a heavy burden on the National Guard and Army reserve units, consisting of dedicated but less well-trained men and women, many of whom never expected to do prolonged service overseas.

There is no cheap route to victory in the war on terror, which is, after all, affordable by our $12 trillion economy. But the president seems intent on accomplishing the incompatible tasks of persuading us that we are in a war for the survival of our values and way of life, while at the same time doling out tax refunds to keep us happily in the malls, resisting measures to reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil lest higher-cost gasoline crimp our summer driving vacations, and promising to take us to Mars. No pain, lots of gain--good for a reelection campaign, but not exactly in the national interest.

It is not only a question of being willing to spend what it takes to win this war. The president succeeded in getting Congress to authorize the expenditure of some $18.4 billion on reconstructing Iraq. But he can't even get his bureaucrats to spend that money. A full year after major combat operations in Iraq have ended, less than 5 percent of that money has been spent. Bush seems to have surrendered control of the pace of reconstruction to form-fillers, drafters of requests for proposals, auditors who have no sense of urgency, and a host of folks who seem to care not at all that Baghdad will swelter through the summer with only erratic supplies of electricity. While the bureaucrats are dotting every i and crossing every t, the reconstruction program languishes. This is, after all, George W. Bush's government, and it is difficult to believe that a single, jobs-on-the-line meeting of the relevant departments, in the Oval Office, wouldn't shake the money tree.

FORTUNATELY FOR THE PRESIDENT, he remains our best bet to lead us to victory in the war, and to prosperity in the future. John Kerry is as eager to call it quits in Iraq as is Bush, the main difference being that the Democratic candidate would have our troops hand over their responsibilities to blue-helmet U.N. peacekeepers with an unblemished record of failure, while Bush would hand off power to some version of a sovereign Iraqi government cobbled together by the U.N.'s Israel-hating Lakhdar Brahimi, and at least hang around long enough to restore some semblance of order to the country.