What John Kerry should say about Iraq.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION consistently lowballs the cost of major legislation, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are no exception. The pattern is by now familiar: The White House offers up a cost estimate just high enough to promise members of Congress they won’t have to cast another tough vote, but not so high that voters question the cost of the war. Before the war in Iraq, former Office of Management and Budget Director

Mitch Daniels estimated the total cost of the conflict at $50 to $60 billion. Last fall, the White House came to Congress asking for $87 billion more, though some defense experts said this would not be enough. Last week, the administration—which had planned to put off more funding requests until after the election—asked Congress to appropriate $25 billion for military operations. Once again, it is not nearly enough.

At nearly $5 billion per month, the tab for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is rapidly approaching the average monthly expenditure for the Vietnam War. Even with the additional $25 billion, members of the House and Senate Budget Committees have concluded that at least another $50 billion will be required next year, and many defense experts say even this figure underestimates the true cost. In recent weeks, after all, the insurgency has gained steam, the administration has announced plans to maintain troop levels at 138,000 through 2005, and intensified combat operations have exacted a steep price in equipment and manpower lost.

How, then, did the administration come up with the $25 billion figure? Simple: $25 billion is just enough to get the White House through the November elections. Indeed, it doesn’t plan to reveal the full tally for 2005 until next January or February. Members of the Bush team, as Republican Representative Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, puts it, “have come to think that it’s politically embarrassing that they need more money to pay for this war.” To their credit, congressional Republicans like Weldon have pressed the White House to ask for more money up front. Even better, congressional Democrats, many of whom voted against the $87 billion appropriation last November, have upped the ante, too. “Given the increased tempo of operations as seen in April and the need for the long-term deployment of troops,” explained Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, "it is clear that this is not enough money.” House and Senate Democrats are now drawing up an amendment that would request up to $75 billion for the war.

What’s missing is a strong statement from John Kerry, the Democrats’ de facto leader. While a Kerry spokesman says he would vote for the $25 billion, Kerry himself has so far avoided the issue. That’s no surprise, given the political forces pulling him in different directions: his desire to simultaneously maintain credibility as a wartime candidate while not alienating antiwar voters, his prior vote against $87 billion for fighting and rebuilding Iraq, and his emphasis on fiscal responsibility.

Kerry has no cost-free way out of this dilemma. But he can strengthen his political position while remaining true to his convictions. First, he should join congressional Democrats demanding $75 billion. This would allow him to outflank President Bush in his support of the troops. It would be consistent with his call to add 40,000 troops to the armed forces. And it would reinforce his commitment to seeing through the mission in Iraq. Whatever mistakes the Bush administration has made, it is imperative that we do everything possible to make the best of the situation. Second, Kerry should demand that Bush pay for the war. If we admit Iraq is an ongoing commitment, then we must treat it as an ongoing expense. Kerry needn’t insist the money come from the tax cut, just that Bush find the money somewhere. If Bush wants to propose $75 billion in spending cuts as an alternative to partial repeal of the tax cut, he’s free to do so. (Of course, he won’t, because he knows he’d lose that argument in the court of public opinion.) Tying the tax cut to the war’s costs is not extraneous politicization. To the contrary, the shortcomings in Afghanistan and the debacle in Iraq result in part from the administration’s desire to fight wars on the cheap, a product of its theological commitment to upper-bracket tax-cutting.

To be sure, Republicans will never allow a vote on paying for the military appropriations, so, in the end, Kerry is going to have to vote yes or no on a bill that merely adds to the deficit. He should vote yes. In so doing, he can partially redeem himself for his vote against the $87 billion. And he can show that he’s more honest and more courageous—on both the war and the deficit—than the administration. Sadly, that’s not hard.