President Obama's Big Afghan War Strategy Sell

Critics of an anticipated troop surge focus on its costs versus health care.

November 29, 2009, 7:45 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2009— -- A more than $1.4 trillion federal deficit is making the war in Afghanistan and health care reform competing priorities for American taxpayer dollars.

The president is expected to order an additional 30,000 service members to go to Afghanistan, at an estimated cost of $1 million each, in an announcement about his new Afghan war strategy scheduled for Tuesday night.

Yet health care reform is full speed ahead as well, at a cost estimated at around $900 billion.

With Americans anxious over a double-digit unemployment rate in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democrats and Republicans bickered this weekend over which issue should take priority.

Democrats critical of a U.S. troops surge focused on its costs vis-a-vis health care reform, while Republicans argued national security spending should come before costly domestic initiatives. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are almost evenly divided over whether they support sending more troops to Afghanistan.

The poll found that over the last few weeks, Americans have become more likely to favor increasing troop levels Afghanistan, at 47 percent. Yet almost an equal number of Americans would either reduce troop levels or keep them where they are, at 39 percent and 9 percent respectively.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc. reiterated Sunday his proposal to tax Americans to pay for the Afghan War and any troop increase. His proposed Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010 would tax American couples making more than $150,000 a year to pay for the war in Afghanistan.

"We've been told for a year that we need to pay for every dollar that it's going to cost us to reform our health care system. That's about $900 billion over 10 years. If we wind up being committed in Afghanistan for eight to 10 years, that's also going to approach $800 billion to $900 billion," Obey said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"It seems to me that if we're being told we have to pay for health care, we certainly ought to pay for this effort as well," Obey said.

"The problem is that you can have the best policy in the world, but if you don't have the tools to implement it, it isn't worth a beanbag," he said. "And I don't think we have the tools in the Pakistani government and I don't think we have the tools in the Afghan government. And until we do, I think much of what we do is a fool's errand."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., member of the Armed Services Committee and a West Point military academy graduate, made similar statements.

"We have to begin to pay for everything we do. We're engaged in a huge debate on health care and central to that debate is paying for it. And if we're paying for the health and welfare of the American people, we certainly have to pay for our operations overseas," Reed said on CNN.

"I think the important point is that we have to commit not to indefinitely, through deficits, fund these operations, but do it in a reasonable, pragmatic way," he said.

Liberal independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said it was difficult to support a troop increase in Afghanistan, given the current domestic economic woes and lack of international cooperation on the war.

"I've got a real problem about expanding this war where the rest of the world is sitting around and saying, 'Isn't it a nice thing that the taxpayers of the United States and the U.S. military are doing the work that the rest of the world should be doing?'" Sanders said on ABC's "This Week."

"I have a real problem supporting 30,000 or 40,000 more troops and $100 billion more a year for that war on top of what we're spending in Iraq," he said.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he doubts Obey's war tax will pass, but placed a different condition on the worth of an anticipated troop surge.

"It's worth it, providing our mission is to get the Afghan army and the Afghan people in charge of their own future. We cannot by ourselves win a war," Levin said on CBS's "Face the Nation." He also said the president should address how to pay for a surge in a "very forthright way."

However, not all Democrats are critical of an anticipated troops increase in Afghanistan.

"I'm looking foward to hearing the presidents's rationale for choosing the strategy that he has. I think he's going to adopt the optimal strategy," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., on "FOX News Sunday."

Bayh said he would like to hear the president be forthright about the costs of his decision, but said it was important to priortize national security over fiscal health.

"You need to provide for the nation's security regardless of your financial situation, and there's no bigger deficit hawk in Congress than I am," Bayh said.

Republicans: Delay Health Care Reform, Focus on Afghanistan

Republicans who support increased spending in Afghanistan say the president should sacrifice spending on Democratic-backed health care reform.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Congress should focus on the Afghan war instead of health care reform for the remainder of the year.

"The war is terribly important. Jobs and our economy are terribly important. So this may be an audacious suggestion, but I would suggest we put aside the health care debate until next year, the same way we put cap-and-trade and climate change and talk about the essentials, the war and money," Lugar said.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said he saw no better use of taxpayer dollars than to defend America.

"Can we trim up the health care bill and other big-ticket items to pay for a war that we can't afford to lose?" Graham said on ABC.

Dems Say Health Care Reform Should Continue

Despite the costs of health care reform, Reed and other Democrats said the president should push forward.

"I think we have to push forward. I think the president's speech will be appropriate. I think the strategy we'll analyze in the committees and I think we can go forward on both fronts and we have to," Reed said.

Levin predicted Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid would garner 60 votes in the Senate to pass a health care reform bill, "probably" with a public option that includes the possibility for states to opt out.

"I think there's a decent chance that we'll be able to get 60 votes," he said on CBS. "The leader here, Harry Reid, has done a really good job of getting 60 votes to jump that first hurdle, which was a procedural hurdle. But I wouldn't underestimate his capability to get us to 60 votes on final passage."

According to a Gallup poll conducted early November, "health care" ranked the second most important problem facing Americans at 22 percent, while "wars/wars in general" ranked fourth, at 8 percent. The "situation in Afghanistan" specifically ranked as the seventh most important issue, at 4 percent. The "economy" ranked number one, at 31 percent.

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