WASHINGTON -- The debate over the constitutionality of U.S. involvement in Libya's civil war has obscured what could be a far harder sale for the president. Come the end of September, the costs borne by the American taxpayer for the country's intervention in Libya will surpass $1.1 billion, according to the administration's own accounting.
In the age of austerity, this is hardly chump change. And while the major gripes with U.S. policy center on the strategic purpose of getting involved -- or the legal rationale for choosing to do so -- it is the cost that could bring it all to an end.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Thursday defended the $716 million that had already been spent on Libya by June 3.
"It is also important to note that the money that you mention is coming from existing funds," Carney said, during the daily briefing. "There is no request for a supplemental. And it is money that would have been spent on other things like training missions that are being fulfilled by the actual missions being performed. So this is not new money. And we believe that it continues to be in the U.S. interest to participate in this mission in the limited manner that we are participating in it because it is in our interest, within this multinational coalition, to continue to protect Libyan civilians, to continue to enforce the no-fly zone and an arms embargo to give the opposition the time and space that it needs to organize."
It is true that the U.S. intervention in Libya is falling within preexisting budgets. In that regard, it is not a technical cost on the taxpayer so much as a product unexpectedly purchased.
And while the idea that the Pentagon has to spend every cent it is appropriated -- and therefore couldn't take the savings from not going into Libya to have a smaller funding request next fiscal year -- may seem irrational, it is an actual quirk of the budget process.
"No department can roll over funds," said Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director at the National Security Network, a progressive-leaning organization, "and nobody ever wants to admit that there are funds that haven't been spent."
So is Carney right in his defense? Yes, but not entirely. While there is crossover between the mission in Libya and the activities being done by U.S. forces domestically (training being the major component), there have been activities that will need to be paid for down the road. In particular, the stocks of missiles and rockets that have been fired will have to be replaced. The machinery used will have to be restored. And, depending on the outcome, the levels of foreign aid will fluctuate as well.
"On the one hand, no, there are costs to this," said Hurlburt when told of Carney's statement. "It is not cost free and it is disingenuous to present this as cost free. But the Pentagon budget is constructed in a way that what they are saying is reasonable."