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U.S. defense outlays keep growing and growing

How much is enough? And could the money be better spent on domestic programs?

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Washington's congressional budget planners had a new, costly curve thrown at them two weeks ago when the Bush administration formally committed the United States to a long-term military presence in Iraq to protect the government in Baghdad from internal coup plots and foreign enemies. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched talks in Iraq last Wednesday.

Already there is speculation that it may involve 50,000 American troops in one or more permanent bases in Iraq.

If so, it would cost $7 billion to $10 billion a year, according to a "back of the envelope" calculation by Gordon Adams, a military expert and international relations professor at American University in Washington.

That's not an extraordinary amount when compared with total American defense spending of about $750 billion for fiscal year 2008 (which began Oct. 1), a sum calculated by Professor Adams. That larger dollar figure, however, exceeds the defense spending of all other nations in the world – combined.

For fiscal 2008, President Bush has asked for $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Such outlays make it "much more difficult" to provide funds for programs aimed primarily at helping American civilians, says Stan Collender, a Washington budget expert with Corvis Communications.

Right now, many Washington budget-watchers see the bickering between a Democratic majority in Congress and a Republican White House over spending bills as more of a political squabble than a fight over the merits of the outlays. Democrats are trying to enlarge domestic programs, telling voters they have a heart. Republicans are attempting to prove they are fiscally responsible and properly tough. "It's macho politics," says Mr. Collender.

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