Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hello? Reason Calling Earth. Hello?

I listened to President Bush’s press conference this morning. Of everything he said in his opening statement, what caught my ear was his exhortation for the U.S. people to go out and shop. This was his exhortation – remember – right after September 11, 2001 and again following Hurricane Katrina.

During the question and answer period, Bush said the most important challenge and concern for the new Congress is sustaining the economy, including making permanent the tax breaks that are set to expire in the next two to four years.

While dodging the question of whether he is at odds with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on sending more troops to Iraq, Bush spoke of possibly expanding the Army and the Marines. He then squares the circle by saying that he is confident that the U.S. military can “win” in Iraq – indirectly stating the “clear mission” that the Chiefs say they would want before increasing troop totals in Iraq.

This is insanity on insanity.

Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman acknowledged that Iraq and Afghanistan war spending in Fiscal 2007 will be more than the projected $110 billion. Independent estimates put the years total at $170 billion. Seventy billion has already been appropriated, and OMB reportedly has a supplemental request from the Pentagon for $99.7 billion more. (Okay – that is “only” $169.7 billion, not $170 billion.)

Then there are the long-term costs of reconstituting the equipment damaged and destroyed in Iraq – money that Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, will approve – conservatively estimated at $100 billion. And that sum does not include operating expenses, people costs, or facilities for a post-war expanded force.

So why is Rob Portman not perturbed? Well, it seems tax revenues “are up because of the growing economy. That has enabled us not just to afford the relatively high supplementals, higher than expected, but also to have a declining deficit.”

There it is in a nutshell – the Republicans, who for years have labeled Democrats the party of “tax and spend” – are doing the same thing. They differ only in that Democrats (according to Republicans) spend on social programs whereas Republicans spend on military programs. Moreover, because the war is so expensive, the higher revenues are unavailable for fundamental health or education needs or for reducing the national debt (as distinguished from the deficit) as happened in the late 1990s.

Were that not enough bad news, the same day (December 20) the Government Accountability Office released its latest scathing critique of the Army’s oversight of the 60,000 contractors working in Iraq. GAO found that this failing had translated into lowered military effectiveness and declining morale.

But this day brought more bad news about another subject that surfaces from time to time -- the burgeoning medical costs of this war, both the physical and the psychological damage to bodies and minds The Army reported that more troops deploying to or deployed in Iraq complained about stress, depression and anxiety. But the possible significance of this finding was devalued by the assertion that the higher numbers are the result of better and more frequent surveys. Among troops deploying to Iraq for the first and second times stood at 12.5 and 18.4 percent, respectively. The numerical suicide rate– 22 – among soldiers stationed in Kuwait and Iraq was nearly double the total in 2004 – 12.

In all, more than 650,000 soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq; of this number, 170,000 have served two or more tours. With repeat tours coming with greater frequency, troops are going back without having fully recovered their “background” or "normal" “peacetime” stress levels.

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