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Time to Consider a War Surtax

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With a few days left before Congress considers President Obama’s request to authorize a “limited and narrow” response against the Syrian regime, it’s an appropriate time to reflect upon the factors involved in choosing to deploy military forces.

There are five considerations that should weigh heavily on the president’s mind, as well as in Congress’s deliberations: core U.S. interests, our responsibility to humanity owed to our unique place in the world, the military response itself (proportion, adequate, meaningful), future risks and cost.

Unfortunately, the Washington discussion has focused on the first four. All the more reason that the last one deserves our attention at this time.

We went into Iraq for all the wrong reasons—phantom weapons of mass destruction, bad (possibly “cooked”) intelligence, impatience and a bit of hubris. We demonstrated once again that decisions made in the context of heightened emotions are often flawed. The result was a war whose ultimate duration and cost apparently never crossed the minds of the past administration. Too bad. There were many unanticipated costs: Too many servicemen and women were sacrificed. A trillion dollars on the U.S. credit card (three trillion, if you total all current and future obligations). A mounting federal debt that many still refuse to acknowledge was caused in part by our nearsighted military excursion. (That, and simultaneous tax cuts for the rich.)

I don’t have ready advice for the Congress on how to vote. Let’s wait for the coming full debate and the associated facts for that. But I do know what should be done to protect our future selves: amend the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (commonly referred to as the War Powers Act). As it currently stands, the president is required to notify Congress within 48 hours of introducing our armed forces into hostilities. The president must then seek Congressional authorization to continue past 60 days.  My proposal is to amend the Act so that after 120 days from the commencement of hostilities, an across-the-board war surtax would automatically be imposed. Wars have historically been funded by new taxes. The Civil War, World Wars I and II, even Vietnam all brought with them new approaches to taxation. Iraq and Afghanistan were notable exceptions. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves: wars are expensive and it’s time we confront that reality and plan for it. Not just for Syria, but for all future conflicts.

This simple Congressional action would have several benefits. First, it would give additional impetus for a president to consider more carefully his or her options. The president would have to build broad support among the American public – not an easy task in the face of a war-weary, perhaps cynical citizenry. It should be noted that the British House of Commons recently rejected Prime Minister Cameron’s request to participate in holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to account. Second, it would keep open-ended, billion- and trillion-dollar wars off our credit card. (Keeping the cost of war off the books was something that the Bush administration was particularly adept at.) And third, a newly amended War Powers Act just might restore Congress’s authority to wage war. Congress was given that authority and responsibility in the Constitution for a reason – so that the people, through their representatives, could decide when it is in the national interest to commit ourselves to foreign entanglements.

What would I do if I were in Congress – go with the president as a loyal Democrat or refuse him the authority in this instance? I certainly know this: In the future, I would not vote “yes” if there were not first a vote on my War Powers Act amendment.

There are many ways to bypass Congress. My point is to make it harder and to be more honest with the American people.

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