Take your money, Mr. President, but at least say you're sorry.

Take your money, Mr. President, but at least say you're sorry.

Take your money, Mr. President, but at least say you're sorry.

Policy made plain.
Sept. 11 2003 12:22 PM

87 Billion Apologies

Take your money, Mr. President, but at least say you're sorry.

President Bush will get his $87 billion for a year's worth of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he will have to endure a lot of nyah-nyah-nyah and I-told-you-so along the way. He could have avoided all this irritation—and he is just the kind of man to find it incredibly irritating—with two little words in his TV address last Sunday evening: "I'm sorry." If he had acknowledged with a bit of grace what everyone assumes to be true—that the administration was blindsided by the postwar challenge in both these countries—this would have cut off a politically damaging debate that will now go on through the election campaign. And he would have won all sorts of brownie points for high-mindedness. Instead, he and his spokesfolk will be defending a fairly obvious untruth day after day through the election campaign.

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Why do politicians so rarely apologize? Why in particular won't they admit to being surprised by some development? Lack of scruples can't explain it: Denying the obvious isn't even good unscrupulous politics. For that reason, it is beyond spin. If spinning involves an indifference to truth, what's going on here looks more like an actual preference for falsehood. The truth would be better politics, and the administration is fanning out to the talk shows to lie anyway.

This is not meant to be a partisan observation. Bush's predecessor was, if anything, a more flamboyant liar. What's going on here is something like lying-by-reflex. If the opposition accuses you of saying the world is round, you lunge for the microphone to declare your passionate belief that it is flat. Or maybe it has something to do with the bureaucracies that political campaigns have become. The truth, whatever its advantages, is messy and out-of-control. A lie can be designed by committee, vetted by consultants, tested with focus groups, shaped to perfection. Anyone can tell the truth. Crafting a good lie is a job for professionals.

This $87 billion request is a minefield of embarrassments, through which a simple "We got it wrong" would have been the safest route. After all, Bush either knew we'd be spending this kind of money for two or more years after declaring victory—and didn't tell us—or he didn't realize it himself. Those are the only two options. He deceived us, or he wasn't clairvoyant in the fog of war. Apparently, Bush would rather be thought omniscient than honest, which is a pity, since appearing honest is a more realistic ambition. Especially for him.

What's more, this would have been a truth without a tail. Telling one hard truth can lead you down, down, down into a vicious circle of more truth, revelation, embarrassment, and chagrin. That's one reason for the truth's dangerous reputation. But the Bush administration's failure to realize how much its postwar festivities would cost is a truth that doesn't lead anywhere in particular. Clearly knowing about the $87 billion bill for Year 2 would not have stopped Bush from conducting the war to begin with. Nor would this knowledge have stopped opponents from opposing it. Among supporters, there may be a few people who bought Bush's initial war-on-terrorism rationale, didn't mind the bait-and-switch to his revised freedom-and-democracy rationale, reveled in the military victory, and yet would have opposed it all if they'd known about the $87 billion. But it is an odd camel whose back is broken by this particular straw.

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Bush needs some truth-telling points, because another aspect of this $87 billion request is driving him to dishonesty that he can't abandon so blithely. That issue is: If he gets the $87 billion, where will it have come from? Bush is sending Colin Powell around the world with a begging cup. But whatever can't be raised from foreigners apparently can be conjured out of thin air.

Raising taxes to pay the $87 billion would be a bad mistake, Bush says: Economic growth—fed by tax cuts—will cover the $87 billion and then some. But however miraculous Bush's tax cuts turn out to be, economic growth will not be $87 billion more miraculous just because that much more is suddenly needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does Bush plan, or even concede the necessity, to harvest this $87 billion at some point by raising taxes (or not cutting them) by that amount. And although he talks vaguely about spending restraint, he and the Congress controlled by his party have shown very little of it. He certainly has not pinpointed $87 billion in other spending that the new $87 billion can replace.

So, spending $87 billion costs nothing, apparently. This makes it even sillier to deny being blindsided. What difference does it make?

While apologizing to the citizenry, Bush could win even more brownie points, at almost no cost, by apologizing specifically to his predecessor. Bush ridiculed Bill Clinton's efforts to follow up military interventions with "nation building." Believe it or not, this was a pejorative term, implying unrealistic ambitions. Now Bush talks about turning Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy.

And if Bush wants credit for a Gold-Star Triple-Whammy Zirconium-Studded apology, he should apologize to his father, who stopped Gulf War I at the Iraqi border. Armchair Freudians believe that in going to Baghdad and toppling Saddam, George II was playing Oedipal tennis with George I. If so, junior has lost. The elder Bush's most notorious decision as president looks better every day. And not just because of the $87 billion.