Where would the Bush administration be without terrorism? Like the Cold War before it, the "war on terror" is a conveniently sweeping rationale for all manner of irrational governance, such as the outrageous $2.77 trillion budget the president proposed to Congress on Monday.
Without terrorism, how could Bush justify to fiscal conservatives the whopping budget deficits that he has ballooned via his tax cuts for the wealthy that he now seeks to make permanent? Without terrorism, how could he convince government corruption watchdogs that the huge increases in military and homeland security -- 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively -- aren't simply payback to the defense contractors who so heavily support the Republicans every election cycle? Without terrorism, how could the president get away with blindly dumping another $120 billion into the war in Afghanistan and the bungled occupation of Iraq that the Bush administration had once promised would be financed by Iraqi oil sales?
In order to pay for the money pit that is Iraq, the Bush budget demands draconian cuts in 141 domestic programs, led by a $36 billion cut in Medicare spending for the elderly over the next five years. This from a president re-elected after promising to expand rather than curtail health-care services to seniors.
Many of the other proposed cuts are equally obscene, such as the termination of $1 billion in child-care funds over five years, and the complete elimination of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program that provides food assistance to low-income seniors, needy pregnant women and children.
These attacks on the social safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society are not only patently unfair, in light of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, but the simultaneous blank check for the Pentagon cannot be honestly justified by the fight against terrorism. And although the president insists that it is unpatriotic to question his strategies in fighting terrorism, let me risk his opprobrium, and that of the pseudo-conservative bully boys that shill for him in the media, by doing just that.
To begin with, we must remember that this "war" was launched against an enemy, still mostly at large, who on Sept. 11 accomplished phenomenal destruction and suffering with armaments no fiercer or costly than some box-cutters. Their key weapon, in fact, was suicidal fanaticism.
Yet, rather than sensibly investing in aggressive global detective work, collaborating with our European allies, engaging meaningfully with an independent and skeptical Arab world, and working to protect vulnerable U.S. sites such as nuclear-power plants, our leaders decided to turn logic on its head and make ignorance about the enemy into a virtue, slash civil liberties and recklessly invade a major Muslim country that had no connection to the attacks.
In other words, our response to Sept. 11 has been almost completely military in nature, granting the Defense Department an excuse to increase spending by 48 percent in just four years. Yet, despite all this spending, and the loss of life that has accompanied it, our standing in the Muslim world has been in freefall since we invaded Iraq, we have never captured or killed Osama bin Laden or his top strongman, we don't know how to "fix" Iraq or Afghanistan, and we have greatly strengthened the hand of our rivals in Iran.
We don't even know, as the Sept. 11 commission report revealed, much of anything about the 15 Saudi hijackers and their four leaders from other parts of the Arab world who committed the Sept. 11 attacks. We do know, however, that they weren't from Iraq, weren't funded by Iraq and weren't trained by or in Iraq; nevertheless, the huge elephant in the Bush budget is the war and occupation of Iraq, now approaching its third anniversary, not the effort to dismantle al Qaeda.
"Since 2001, the administration ... liberated nearly 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan," boasts the Bush budget document. Ah, but if they have been liberated, then why the need for an additional $50 billion emergency "bridge funding" in 2007, itself coming on the heels of a supplementary $70 billion budget request last week? The answer provided by the report is that Iraq is far from being stabilized and that in Afghanistan "enemy activity has increased over the past year."
Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership in Congress is still unwilling to challenge the necessity of "winning" the war in Iraq and, as a result, its complaints about cutting needed domestic programs are framed exclusively as an argument against making Bush's tax cuts permanent. It is a losing argument, because it leaves Bush as both the big spender and the big tax-cutter once again, posturing as the savior of the taxpayer when he is in fact quite the opposite for all but the wealthiest Americans.