Oh What a Lovely Budget Item

For a neocon, fiscal restraint stops at the water's edge.


When Bill Kristol endorsed America's intervention in Libya, the Weekly Standard editor was being completely consistent with everything else he has said about American foreign policy. He just wasn't being consistent with his pose as a proponent of fiscal restraint. It's bracing to watch Kristol twirl so easily from denouncing "the Democrats' orgy of spending" and complaining about Republicans who "don't have a credible plan to deal with the debt or the deficit" to jubilating that the president "didn't shrink from defending the use of force." But the pundit's gyrations can't obscure a basic reality: You can pay your bills or you can be a global policeman, but you can't do both. Not in 2011.

According to ABC, the cost of Obama's kinetic spending reached $600 million in its first week. The Pentagon estimates that the total could reach $800 million by the end of September, and the Pentagon just might be lowballing. Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has told The National Journal that the price tag could "easily pass the $1 billion mark on this operation, regardless of how well things go." And if things don't go well…

But let's stick, for the moment, with the costs of that initial week. That's already more than half the amount House Republicans have asked to cut from Americorps. It's more than twice the amount they've asked to cut from Amtrak. It's nearly four times the size of National Public Radio's entire operating budget for fiscal year 2011, including the parts that come from private sources. All this for just a week of a war that—unlike our invasions and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan—doesn't even pretend to be an act of self-defense. (When Kristol endorsed a spending freeze, he made an explicit exception for "national security." I realize that "national security" is usually a euphemism for "anything remotely related to foreign policy," but just for fun, let's take it literally. Does anyone out there seriously believe NATO's planes are in Libya's skies to keep Americans secure?)

And what about those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the price tag isn't threatening to hit a billion but long ago topped a trillion? It goes without saying that Kristol and his cohort still support both wars even as they're eager to add a third. It also goes without saying that the Libyan operation will make it harder to make military cuts of any kind. (As a spokesman for Joe Lieberman put it to Politico, "Congress should be very careful and cautious about any reductions in defense spending, given the many profound responsibilities shouldered by our military at this time.") For a neocon, fiscal restraint stops at the water's edge.

There are several coherent ways to think about federal spending and foreign policy right now. You can address America's fiscal crisis by calling for serious cuts both at home and abroad. That's the libertarian path. You can deny that we're facing a serious fiscal crisis at all, and thus feel free to support new spending at home and overseas. That's what the pro-war, pro-bailout liberal hawks have been doing. And you can deny we face a serious fiscal crisis but join in the libertarians' other arguments against the wars. That's the liberal doves' approach.

What you can't coherently claim is that we need to both (a) bring our financial house in order or face fiscal ruin and (b) embark on one expensive open-ended military adventure after another. Yet conservatives in the Kristol mold don't seem to see a contradiction here at all.

On Thursday, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post led off a blog entry with fulsome praise for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a letter he recently wrote endorsing American intervention in Libya. She contrasted Rubio and his red-blooded hawkishness with President Obama, who she assured us "would still be dithering" if it weren't for pressure from "Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and a few others." She made it clear that she thinks the locales that demand our leadership are not limited to Libya. She was especially scornful of Obama's alleged belief that "we will meet our obligations" to the world only if "it doesn't cost too much."

And then, in the very same post, she complained that the president's budget is "devoid of serious measures to steer us back from the brink of fiscal doom." She's right about that. But she isn't one to talk.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.