A War Tax: A Strategic, Fiscal and Political Imperative

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama is about to make a momentous decision: whether and to what extent to commit the United States to continuous war in Afghanistan. It is the most difficult decision I think this, or any other president, has probably confronted.

History provides conflicting advice. Foreign occupiers of Afghanistan always fail and, at the same time, our abandoning Afghanistan after the Afghans defeated the Soviet Union arguably left a political vacuum that the al-Qaeda coddling Taliban filled. Unlike his predecessor, this President has been able to get the significant Pakistani cooperation in going after terrorists in the FATA region, and it is unclear (to me) what impact leaving Afghanistan would have on that relationship, and the stability of the nuclear-armed Pakistani government.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry correctly pointed out that none of the options in Afghanistan are good -- that, thanks to the Bush/Cheney legacy, all we are left with is to find the least bad alternative.

Nonetheless, it has become far too 'easy' for presidents to commit us to war. Other peoples' children fight, die and are wounded. Only a tiny fraction of the country is mobilized and actually sacrifices. It is conducted on borrowed money. Indeed, candidate Kerry's oft-quoted "I voted for it before voting against it" was a vote on paying for the Iraq War (he was for it) that was defeated, and so he voted against it.

If the president wants to continue and/or raise the commitment, and there is even the remotest chance of achieving anything meaningful, we are going to have to be there for the long haul. The "long haul," however, on borrowed money is a non sequitur. Hence, for strategic reasons, a war tax paying-as-we-go for whatever operations the president determines is a strategic imperative unless the decision is to cease-and-desist. The idea of continuing or raising the commitment for a long haul when the long haul is unaffordable and thus impossible is a cruel waste of life and limbs and time and money and prestige.

A war tax is also a fiscal imperative. For all those concerned -- as I am -- about our debt on the one hand, and the need, on the other hand, for fiscal stimulus to prevent a slide back to depression and reform health care and create a new energy economy and make our education world-class and and rebuilding our infrastructure and provide baby boomers their retirement and medicare (and, even those elements that some might argue could be funded by tax cuts, it is still a fiscal loss and, if permanent, an even greater budget burden than temporary seeding through direct government expenditures), paying for the wars via a war tax enables the President to fund what he is doing at the proper levels and not further indebt us to other countries.

It is worth reminding ourselves that a high level of foreign indebtedness is a reduction in sovereignty -- the other party(ies) can brandish our debt as a weapon very much like banks are foreclosing on peoples' homes. Although the rightwing will never support a tax for anything, their calls for American strength ring hollow as they allow the US to become more dependent on the good will of countries and people they despise by not paying for the wars they trumpet so long as other peoples' children fight them. (Question to Joe Lieberman: which one of your kids is volunteering for Afghanistan?)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is a political imperative. Without a draft, and without a war tax, 99.9% of Americans do not have to sacrifice at all to continue the war. It is too easy for war to become, for 99.9% of us, more like a video game played out on television (that rarely shows more than a snippet of pain, suffering and life long injury).

The Bush Administration was keenly aware that having to pay for the Iraq War would cost it support. That is why they lied about its projected costs. That is why they bristled when General Shinseki told the truth about the number of troops required for a post-war occupation (we could all do the math).

And, that is why Republicans voted against paying for the Iraq War. John Kerry's description of the vote was certainly a verbal gaffe, but it contained a strong dose of substance.

Continuing the Afghanistan war is already unpopular when the question is put, but it has not stimulated major televised hearings or debates, and it is likely that President Obama can order 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 thousand more troops to Afghanistan without a controversy searing into the consciousness of the American people because it does not touch most of us directly. It will be a story for about a week or two.

An Afghan war vote in the Congress accompanied by a war tax to pay for it would force Republicans to make a choice between their mindless opposition to any taxes and their (equally) mindless all out support of any war. The President would be politically foolish to allow them to have it both ways -- i.e, disagreeing with whatever the President does militarily, but not having to show how much they really support military action by their willingness to pay for it.

For strategic, fiscal and political reasons, therefore, there ought to be a "war tax" enacted specifically to fund continuing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sunseted when those military actions have finished.

Warring on borrowed money must cease. If people, especially those who can afford it, are not even willing to sacrifice a portion of their wallets for this cause, how can we ask others to sacrifice their lives and limbs?