As wars wind down, no peace dividend, just IOU

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Inevitably, some lawmaker or activist group with better political than math skills will raise the shiny but illusory prospect of a "peace dividend." This would be money we don't have to spend to continue fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Barack Obama's new budget claims $846 billion in "savings" from ending the war in Iraq and beginning the drawdown in Afghanistan, and it proposes spending $230 billion of that on highways.

The phrase "peace dividend" originated with President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and represented the actual savings from no longer having to fund Cold War military readiness.

The first president Bush launched real military cuts that continued under President Bill Clinton and contributed greatly to the balanced budgets on which the country ended the century.

Then came the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The traditional means of fighting wars in this country was to raise taxes to pay for them. President George W. Bush instead elected to cut taxes. Moreover, he took the cost of the wars out of the federal budget. The wars were fought off the books, which tended to obscure the fact that they were fought almost entirely with borrowed money.

At the end of fiscal year 2011, the cost of those wars since 2001 passed the $1.3 trillion mark. A Brown University study estimates the ultimate cost of those wars, including what we've spent on Pakistan and what we are spending and will spend on veterans' pensions and health care, will range from $3.7 trillion to $4 trillion.

Even now, there is pressure in some quarters for the U.S. to take military action against Iran. Putting aside the highly debatable wisdom of that proposition, those who would take the U.S. into another war must specify what taxes they will raise and how high to pay for it.

There will be no peace dividends in the mail, only bills - and for years to come.