Courtesy Reuters

Riding for a Fall

COSTS OF BEING A SUPERPOWER

President George W. Bush has called terrorism the United States' greatest national security threat since World War II and has declared that the war on terrorism must be waged "for years and decades, not weeks or months." Most Americans agree with this assessment and with the need to pay whatever price is necessary to wage this war. But what is the price? And how will the United States pay for it?

It now seems nearly certain that the aging of America's population--which would pose a massive fiscal challenge over the next few decades itself--will unfold in an era of large additional commitments to our national security agenda. Two other issues, in addition to security costs, require attention because of their profound connections both to U.S. national security and to U.S. fiscal and economic performance: the United States' growing financial dependence on foreigners, and the extreme aging overtaking the rest of the developed world.

To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no nation is an island, least of all a superpower with such manifest responsibilities as the United States has in a newly dangerous world. But to commit America to a broader role while remaining blindly ignorant of the ultimate cost of doing so is sheer folly. Clearly, there are long-term tradeoffs to be faced: between economic security and national security, between retirement security and national security, and between today's taxpayers and tomorrow's taxpayers. As yet, however, the leaders of the two major political parties have hardly mentioned these tradeoffs, much less discussed them seriously. When it comes to the long-term fiscal and economic future, U.S. leaders are mute not only on domestic challenges but on global challenges too.

FIRST GLOBAL CHALLENGE: THE WAR ON TERRORISM

In September 2003, with bombs still raining down on Baghdad, President Bush made an emergency war-spending request for $87 billion. It was the largest such request since the opening months of World War II. The cost details arriving from the battlefield

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