WASHINGTON — Two big questions have dominated Washington this week. When will this horrible, cold winter end? And when will the war in Iraq begin? While they are different subjects with different consequences, they are getting about equal time in the capital’s conversation content.
As of mid-February we had experienced the coldest winter since 1997 and the third coldest in the past 30 years. And the recent snowstorm must have set some kind of a snowfall record. The fact is, we have been spoiled by the recent pattern of warmer than normal winters. Clearly, the drought that had raised alarms last summer has been rained and snowed out by now. Weather is one thing that will always change with time.
But the important question of war and peace is not as easy to answer today as it might have seemed a month ago, or even a couple of weeks ago. Not long ago, it seemed that time was on the side of U.S. President George W. Bush as he continued to apply pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and world leaders increasingly insisted on a U.N. program of disarmament and rigorous inspection.
But now world sentiment has dramatically changed. Leaders are reacting to popular protests against war in Iraq. In his report to the United Nations, U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix suggested that he was making progress. He also implied that the United States had presented conflicting evidence to the Security Council, making U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell squirm and react with a personal plea for support.
By the end of the Valentine’s Day meeting of the Security Council, there were few sweet moments for the American case. Instead, some thorns were being felt.
Last weekend, although there was still uncertainty in the air in New York, massive demonstrations against U.S. war plans took place around the world, starting as the day began in New Zealand and running through sunset in Honolulu. Millions of people marched against U.S. policy. The world’s only superpower is losing the battle for world public opinion, and it seems to be losing the battle at home as well.
So maybe the question should not really be “when” an attack on Iraq will begin but rather “if”? I am not sure, but I do know that if there is to be a war, there should be far greater support for the Bush administration’s Iraq policy than exists today — and not just in France, Germany and Australia, but in America as well. The case has not been made for war.
The American people believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an evil villain and that the world would be better off if he were no longer in power. But they have not been convinced that he is linked to the terrorist networks; that he is a direct threat to the United States; that he is such a threat that his demise is worth more than $200 billion and an untold number of American lives. He is not the reason that they are shopping for bottled water, canned goods and duct tape.
The American people I have talked to believe that al-Qaeda terrorists and their leader, Osama bin Laden, pose far more of a threat to their safely than Iraq does. They believe their government when it tells them that there are people trained by bin Laden living in the United States who have plans and weapons that could hurt them or the people they love. And they want their government to turn its attention to finding bin Laden and his followers rather than picking a fight with Hussein — who seems a million miles away, and yesterday’s news.
The idea of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fight a questionable war seems particularly unpleasant given the present economic downturn.
Way back in 1980, then-presidential contender George H.W. Bush invented the term “voodoo economics” to characterize presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s “spend, cut taxes and prosper” plan for the American economy. That is just what a number of leading American economists have said about his son’s “spend, cut taxes and prosper” plan for the American economy that is now on the docket of the 108th Congress in the form of his stimulus plan, his tax plan and his budget for the 2004 financial year.
The economists joined a contrarians’ chorus that is piping the traditional Republican tune that budget deficits and long-term national debt are bad and drag down the prospects for growth and prosperity.
The principal proponent of that song is Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. He recently expressed himself before several congressional panels, suggesting that the “need to re-establish budgetary discipline should be exerted sooner rather than later.”
His concern was simple: The projections of the president’s policies would open a $2.5 trillion gap in the next 10 years, with deficits every year. Without the largess of the Bush initiatives, the surplus would return after the 2007 fiscal year.
But that leaves us with a stagnant economy, perhaps recovering, but not producing jobs in any significant way, and lacking anything that smacks of building consumer or investor confidence. The economists made heavy hits on the president’s ideas for stimulus. They do not think that his ideas for more tax cuts — ending the taxes on dividends and expanding tax-free savings accounts, thereby increasing people’s incentive to save — will do what he says they will do: provide more capital for more companies to invest in more productive facilities and grow the economy. They say it will be a very short-term gain with very negative long-term results.
The Democrats have offered a short-term stimulus tied to putting spending money into the hands of lower-paid workers. This plan is reminiscent of the Bush tax cut of 2000, which they said would get consumption going again and make everything right. Well, the economists didn’t like that either.
I’m not too optimistic about the chances for the president’s plan just now. It has been rejected by the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and now the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board — all Republicans. But I wish somebody would come up with a plan to get this economy of ours on the move again.
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