WASHINGTON — Believe it or not, winning the war in Iraq was never the Bush administration’s highest priority. Saving its tax cuts was more important. That was once spoken of as a moral problem. Now, it’s a practical barrier to a successful outcome.

Until recently, President Bush’s refusal to scale back any of his tax cuts was debated around the question of shared sacrifice: How could we ask so much from a courageous group of Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but not ask even the wealthiest of their fellow citizens to part with a few extra dollars to support an endeavor supposedly central to our nation’s security? On the contrary, even after we committed to war in Iraq, the administration pushed for yet more tax cuts in dividends and capital gains.

Now we know that the decision to put the war on a credit card is not simply a moral question. The administration’s failure to acknowledge the real costs of the war — and to pay them — has put it in a corner.

The president’s options in Iraq are severely constrained because our military is too small for the foreign policy he is pursuing. Sending more troops to Iraq would place even more excruciating burdens on members of our armed forces and their families. And the brass fears that an extended new commitment could, quite simply, break the Army.

Yet instead of building up our military for a long engagement and levying the taxes to pay for such an enterprise, the administration kept issuing merry reports of progress in Iraq. Right through Election Day this year, the president continued to condemn anyone who dared suggest that maybe, just maybe, we should raise taxes to pay for this war.

I think it would be a mistake to send more troops to Iraq. But for the sake of argument, let’s take seriously the idea that doing so might help, as Sen. John McCain and other staunch advocates of the war insist. By not matching the military’s size to what we are asking it to do, we have hugely raised the costs, including the human costs, of such a policy.

Two advocates of “surging 50,000 more troops” to Iraq, Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol, acknowledged in The Weekly Standard last month that their proposal “will strain a strained military further.”

“But it is also true,” they added, “that we can do it — if we think success in Iraq is a national priority — by extending tours, moving troops from other theaters into Iraq, and calling up expanded numbers from the Guard and Reserves.”

How easy it is to talk about extending other people’s tours, calling (or recalling) reservists and National Guard members who have already paid such a high price in this war, and endangering American interests elsewhere in the world in one last effort to make the Iraq gamble work. It’s absurd that the most powerful country in the world finds itself forced to treat its armed forces so shabbily.

Kagan and Kristol, at least, have long spoken out in favor of building a bigger Army. But I don’t recall that they or their comrades in this cause proposed any taxes to pay for it. Presumably that would have been too much to ask of the Republican coalition and those who bankroll it.

So here we are: Policymakers and politicians will demand more and more from the volunteers of the armed forces but can’t find the gumption to ask shareholders to pay a bit more tax on their dividends or high earners to pay slightly larger levies on their incomes. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, since 2001 we’ve offered $2 in tax cuts for every $1 we have spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And conservatives wonder why we have deficits? At least the libertarians, who are against both high taxes and an interventionist foreign policy, have their philosophical story (and their numbers) straight.

It has always been true that the administration and its allies couldn’t have it both ways. Their illogic has finally caught up with them. They claimed to be against big government so they could justify big tax cuts. But they were also for a big, interventionist foreign policy, especially after 9/11, which required a big military and — sorry to break it to you, guys — a big military is a big part of big government. They were not willing to pay for a large enough military, and so now we, and especially our armed forces, are paying for their deficit in logic and courage.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

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