House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Tuesday that every dollar President Obama decides to spend on the war in Afghanistan is one less that's available to help bring about an economic recovery, improve the jobs situation and bank away political capital for Democrats leading up to the midterm elections.
"I think we have to look at that war with a green eyeshade on," Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday on a conference call with financial reporters and economists who blog. "There is unrest in our caucus about: Can we afford this war?"
Pelosi qualified her remarks by noting that cost is not the top concern. "I think the American people believe that if it's something that's in our national security interest," she said, then the investment is worth it.
But it still has to be paid for, she said. "Everything else has to be paid for. It must be fiscally sound. We have to hold it to the same standard, as well."
Most Americans, however, do not believe that the war is worth waging any longer, according to polls. Under President Bush, wars and occupations were paid for with long-term debt; Obama campaigned under the principle that war should mean shared sacrifice.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) warned Obama recently that he would hold him to that promise.
"There ain't going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan," he said. "If they ask for an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan, I am going to ask them to pay for it."
Pelosi backed him up.
"As you know, the chairman of our appropriations committee, Mr. Obey, as well as Mr. Murtha, have both said the war must be paid for," she said, referring to Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally who chairs the subcommittee overseeing war spending. "It is obviously part of the debate, as Mr. Obey insists that it be."
In the 1960s, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson oversaw a full-scale war in Vietnam and, simultaneously, an expansive domestic project at home known as the Great Society -- the so-called "Guns and Butter" approach.
The war took the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. It also sapped enough government treasure and Democratic political capital that the Great Society foundered, Johnson dropped his reelection bid and Richard Nixon was elected, finally smashing the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics for generations.
Even if Obama attempts to repeat history with a troop escalation in Afghanistan, Democrats in Congress, as Pelosi and Obey's comments indicate, might be there to save him from himself by withholding funds.
The lesson from Johnson's example was that Democrats can't have guns and butter at the same time. Pelosi lamented the trillions of dollars wasted in the failed Iraq war and suggested the lesson should be remembered this time around.
"What did we decide, that Iraq was at least $2 trillion? And for what? I mean, God bless our soldiers for their courage and their sacrifice and that of their families. But $2 trillion for what?" said Pelosi. "Think of the opportunity cost when you break it down, when we talk about cancer, for example. We spent in two weeks in Iraq what we spent in a year on cancer research. With all that scientific opportunity that was available to us, we couldn't afford to do more. But we certainly could afford -- or so they told us -- to be in Iraq."
Ultimately, she said, taking cost into consideration should make for a more sober decision-making process.
"We need to know what the mission is, how this is further protecting the American people and is this the best way to do that, especially at a time when there's such serious economic issues here at home," Pelosi said.
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