The recent legislative dispute between Congress and
President George W. Bush, generally described as a contest
over war funding, scheduled to resume in September 2007, is
not primarily about money. By historical standards, the
Iraq war — while soon to be the second most expensive in
American history (second only to World War II) — is
relatively inexpensive as a portion of the U.S. gross
domestic product (GDP). At its height, the Second World War
cost nearly 40% of annual gross domestic product, the
Korean War almost 15%, and the Vietnam War 10%. Iraq,
although costing a hefty $ 9 billion per month, amounts to
less than 1% of this year’s GDP.
This clash involved conflicting views about the wisdom of
continuing U.S. military engagement in a war that to a
growing number of Americans looks like a tragic blunder,
and what leverage Congress had to force a change. The
confrontation was the result of Congress’ limited powers to
alter war policy. After the revolution, the founding
fathers gave Congress the power to tax and determine how
revenues are spent. So while they made the President the
Commander-in-Chief of the military, he could not conduct a
war without the willingness of legislators to appropriate
the funds. That, in theory, gave them enormous powers to
influence wartime policy. However, cutting off funds is a
blunt instrument, which Congress has been reluctant to
exercise lest it be accused of undermining troops in the
It was not always so. War funding was a deeply divisive
issue in the war of 1812 — which was perhaps even more
unpopular than the Iraq war. Officials in some states
advocated secession in protest. The Federalist Party, the
dominant political force in the late 18th century, sought
to deny President Madison, a Jeffersonian Republican, funds
for the war, hoping he would make an early peace. It
failed, but many Americans viewed the tactic as unpatriotic
— and within a few years, the Federalists ceased to exist.
That technique was never attempted again. At the height of
the Second World War, in 1943, a Democratic Congress voted
down President Roosevelt’s request for a large tax hike
because it thought taxes were already too high, but never
cut war appropriations.
During the Vietnam War, Congress gave President Lyndon
Johnson money for the military, but insisted on a tax
increase and cuts in his Great Society social programs. As
casualties mounted, the draft expanded, deficits rose and
inflation increased, support plummeted. But Congress still
did not cut off money for the troops, all of whom were
withdrawn in 1973. In 1974, legislators ultimately used
their power over spending to impose ceilings on the number
of U.S. officials authorized to be in South Vietnam and
later cut off military assistance for the Saigon
Despite a heated debate, when financing the war came before
Congress, they ultimately provided U.S. troops the funds
they needed — as they have over the past 200 years. But
sustaining a war without the support of a large segment of
the population and Congress will prove immensely and
increasingly difficult as in the case of Vietnam — and
pressures for withdrawal will intensify even without a cut
in war spending now.
As the U.S. military presence in Iraq declines, a debate on
how to meet longer-term security needs is imperative. Iraq
has diverted money from other requirements. Even if
stability in Iraq could somehow be achieved, the greater
Middle East and other regions will continue to be dangerous
places and may require a prolonged military presence, e.g.,
a continued naval commitment in the Persian Gulf. Equipment
destroyed or worn out in the Iraq War must be replaced;
outreach programs will be needed to improve relations with
countries alienated during recent years; intelligence
capabilities and homeland security will need extensive
shoring up; anti-terrorist forces and the weapons they need
must be augmented; and wounded veterans will require help
for many years. Thus, Americans should not expect a large
The current dispute will leave a legacy of bitterness on
both sides, as after Vietnam. That is understandable, but
allowing it to divert attention from other security needs
would be dangerous. The toxic legacy of Vietnam lasted for
nearly a decade and led to big national security cuts.
Facing a continued terrorist threat, the country cannot
afford that now. Preventing another attack – and if
necessary responding to one – will require substantial
resources. And other new crises are likely to erupt.
Both sides need to work towards a sound financial strategy
to meet these needs and ensure that the U.S. financial
system and economy remain resilient to cope with future
emergencies, including war, a major hurricane, or a
pandemic. The sooner they get to it, the more secure the
country will be.
Robert D. Hormats is Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs (International) and managing director of Goldman, Sachs & Co. Mr. Hormats served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs from 1981 to 1982, Ambassador and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative from 1979 to 1981, and as Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs at the Department of State from 1977 to 1979. He served as a Senior Staff Member for International Economic Affairs on the National Security Council from 1969 to 1977, during which time he was Senior Economic Advisor to Dr. Henry Kissinger, General Brent Scowcroft and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Mr. Hormats was a recipient of the French Legion of Honor in 1982 and Arthur S. Flemming Award in 1978. Mr. Hormats has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and is a member of the Board of Visitors of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He also is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Hormats’ publications include “Abraham Lincoln and the Global Economy”; “American Albatross: The Foreign Debt Dilemma”; and “Reforming the International Monetary System.” Other publications include articles in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, American Banker and The Financial Times.
ABOUT THE BOOK
THE PRICE OF LIBERTY: Paying for America’s Wars
by Robert D. Hormats
Published by Times Books
Copyright (c) 2007 by Robert D. Hormats. All rights reserved.
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