Fighting the last war

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE WAR IN IRAQ is costing plenty - and not just in lives lost or current dollars spent. The war is placing such a burden on the U.S. military that some programs for the future will almost certainly be reduced or dropped altogether. Worse, assuming the war in Iraq ever does end, the military that comes out of it will likely be primarily equipped to fight another war just like it - and not one, say, at sea in the Taiwan Straits, or against a million-man army in Korea.

Right now, the United States is spending $5 billion a month on the war, up from $4 billion in 2003. Total defense spending is at $500 billion a year, counting the supplemental appropriations to cover Iraq; it was at $300 billion when George W. Bush took office. In real terms, the amount of money being wielded by the Pentagon is greater than the Cold War average. That's not sustainable, and next month the Bush administration will formally propose program cuts to slow the growth in defense spending in the years ahead. Skeptics contend the cuts are a public relations gimmick to provide cover for the slashing of domestic programs, and won't stick. We're not so sure.

On the chopping block are Air Force fighters and Navy ships. The Army was once in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's doghouse, but no longer. The Army can't be cut at a moment when it is carrying the burden of the war in Iraq and is under such severe strain.

The cuts may, in fact, even make sense (and they may be, in some part, an excuse to go after programs that Mr. Rumsfeld has never cared for), but it's important to understand that it's the war that is driving decisions affecting long-term plans. The war is crowding out military projects down the pike that don't have any application to Iraq. This war - even as the prospect of ultimate victory grows fainter - is all-consuming. It is casting its shadow on the future. The problem is, no one can say what demands that future will bring.

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