Last week Barack Obama became the third president of our last four to announce sustained military action in Iraq. The sense of deja-vu can be numbing. Everything is not the same, of course, yet even some of the differences this time around contain elements of similarity.
One aspect has to do with how decision-makers are evaluating the cost.
Start with the contrast. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress in February 2003, three weeks before the United States invaded, that “the president’s proposed budget does not estimate the incremental cost of a possible war with Iraq, nor does it request contingency funding to cover them.” Meanwhile, today’s Pentagon was already talking numbers two weeks before Obama’s address, informing the public that Iraq operations currently are running at $7.5 million per day.
Greater honesty about the cost of military action clearly is a good thing. Yet our financial challenge today merely is the inverse of the problem in 2003. The Bush administration chose to ignore contingency funding, while the Obama administration has so much of it that cost isn’t a near-term limitation. As the Pentagon’s press secretary put it, “we’re well within the limits that we need for 2014.”
That’s remarkable. Congress has been absolutely slugging it out over the budget for three years, and yet the Pentagon’s contingency fund still is flush enough that it can comfortably absorb an unplanned tab of $7.5 million every day. Rep. Walter Jones, whose district includes Camp Lejeune, showed his exasperation with this situation in July by denouncing this account as “nothing but a slush fund.”
Jones’ point can be made more precisely: Congress and the White House chose as part of the 2011 budget deal to exempt the Pentagon’s contingency budget from the cap that governs its regular accounts. They simply agreed to ignore the effect of costs in this particular category on taxes and debt. As a result, our elected officials have little incentive to impose discipline over this fund. So they haven’t.
Let’s put some numbers around this. The Pentagon’s contingency budget for this fiscal year is $85 billion. Less than a third of that — $26 billion — is marked for military operations inside Afghanistan. Another $20 billion is going to pay for the work of over 60,000 service members offering support from countries elsewhere in the region. Certainly there is some need for rearguard help, but this commitment has narrowed by only 14 percent since 2011, when the U.S. was surging in Afghanistan and still deployed on the ground in Iraq.
Next up is $18 billion described only as “classified.” Part of this surely pays to collect intelligence about terrorist groups active in Afghanistan, yet the Pentagon indicates that three-quarters of it is separate from Afghanistan. And then there’s $4.5 billion to cover the salaries of soldiers and Marines whom the Pentagon is in the process of cutting. It’s funding them on a contingency basis to dodge the budget cap and bank the savings now, rather than when these personnel actually leave the force.
Finding $7.5 million isn’t a problem, even if you have to do it every day, when tens of billions of dollars are on the table, all exempt the discipline that comes with from budget caps.
Taxpayers can draw several obvious inferences from this.
Most immediately, the Pentagon should be able to accomplish this new military operation in Iraq within its existing resources. There is no way that this mission should cost more than we save in the course of leaving Afghanistan. Our spending for this entire campaign should be offset from elsewhere in the contingency fund.
Looking a little further ahead, Congress and the White House need to cap the Pentagon’s contingency fund in the same way as its other accounts. Confronting trade-offs is the essence of fiscal discipline. Our budget battles over the past three years have been entirely too hard-fought for us to let the savings just leak away.
And then there’s the big picture. “Contingency fund,” both in Washington parlance and even as I’ve used it here, is just a euphemism. This account pays for war, however you want to call it, and decision-makers from across our government want it to be a standing part of the budget. The United States is close to a point of budgeting for permanent war. That may not be the intent, but it could well be the effect. This has escaped broad, national attention for far too long.
It’s been 11 years since we last launched a military campaign in Iraq. Paying for it was a triviality then. Now we’ve reached the point that buying a military campaign is normal. The paradox is that, both times around, we started a fight in Iraq without being forced to take full measure of the sacrifices that go along with it.
Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina.