WAR ON THE CHEAP….This morning I made an offhand comment wondering why Rumsfeld and Cheney have argued so strenuously that we can win this war with relatively light troop deployments. Does it really matter if it costs $150 billion instead of $75 billion?

Atrios wondered the same thing, and I was mulling this over at lunch as well. Neither of us has any inside information, of course, but here are a few possibilities:

  • They believe we are going to be fighting a long series of wars, so they need to show that it can be done relatively cheaply. The cynic in me likes this explanation, but the fact is that Cheney has been pushing the idea of war on the cheap ever since the Bush Sr. administration. I doubt he was thinking of a series of Mideast wars back then, so I’m not sure I buy this, at least not quite this baldly.

  • The administration was genuinely afraid that their support would melt away if the war were twice as expensive as it is. Considering (a) their reluctance to provide a cost estimate for the war while their tax cut bill was in front of Congress, (b) their quick disavowal of Larry Lindsey’s $200 billion cost estimate, and (c) their anger at General Eric Shineki’s high estimates for a long-term occupation force, I’m inclined to give some weight to this idea.

  • We just don’t have the troops for a larger invasion force. The Army, for example, has an active duty total strength of about 500,000, with that many again available from the reserves. The Marines can supply another 200,000. This is about 300,000 less than we had in 1991, so it’s quite possible that a deployment of 500,000 troops would simply spread us too thin these days. Our reliance on reserves produces a related problem: if it becomes obvious that signing up for the reserves is tantamount to active duty ? as opposed to the typical 90-day callups of the 1990s ? people are going to start quitting the reserves in droves and there will be few volunteers around willing to replace them. They may be trying desperately to avoid this scenario.

    On a related note, they are also probably trying desperately to avoid any talk of a draft, realizing (correctly I think) that any such talk would instantly doom their enterprise to the ash heap.

  • Cheney and Rumsfeld want to show that we can win a war solely with lots of high-tech weapons. Remember, this crew came to office promising to “skip a generation” of weaponry and go straight to a new generation of military wizardry, so there may be something to this. Whether this is motivated by a love of technology for its own sake or because they want to enrich their buddies in the military-industrial complex, I couldn’t say.

Generally speaking, I suspect the correct answer is sort a munge of all of this. The Bush adminstration has publicly stated a goal of keeping the American military the strongest in the world forever, and has also publicly backed the idea of preventive war as a part of U.S. policy. It’s obvious, however, that this is a political nonstarter if it’s based on sheer manpower. The American public simply wouldn’t put up with it, so instead they need to prove that it can be done primarily with money and technical know-how. In a few months we’ll know if they succeeded.

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