WASHINGTON — It’s time that we subject the Iraq war to the same cost-benefit analysis that we are called upon to impose on other government endeavors. We are supposed to repeal or revise domestic programs that don’t work. Shouldn’t a troubled war policy be treated the same way?

Driving the current debate is the assumption that we can’t afford to withdraw our troops from Iraq because of the chaos that will ensue. The idea seems to be that somehow — against the evidence of the last four and a half years — good things will happen if we just keep the war going.

This upside-down debate puts the burden of proof in the wrong place. We should be asking whether keeping our forces in Iraq over an extended period is worth the cost in lives, injuries, money, lost opportunities and the strain on our military. How will a prolonged stay in Iraq enhance our security? Is Iraq distracting us from foreign policy questions that will matter far more to our national interest in the long run?

President Bush regularly brags about the accomplishments of the troop surge. It’s certainly true that our troops have performed superbly. Let’s be happy that, albeit at great cost, the overall levels of violence in Iraq have dropped and that al-Qaida in Iraq is weaker today than it was some months ago.

The question to which the administration has no answer is how this military success will produce a decent outcome down the road.

From Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post’s military correspondent, comes a disturbing answer. Ricks reports that our own commanders in the field “now portray the intransigence of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaida terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.”

Ricks quotes Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno on what it would mean if Iraq’s leaders fail to use this moment of reduced violence to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. “If that doesn’t happen,” Odierno said, “we’re going to have to review our strategy.”

Odierno’s candid remarks should unleash a clamor for the administration to explain where its policy is taking us — and whether the continuing sacrifice in Iraq is achieving more than just temporary tactical victories. We can trust our military commanders on tactics. Experience teaches us to be skeptical of the administration on strategy.

Bush’s approach to Iraq is the classic case of a politician arguing that a problem will be solved if only we keep throwing large sums of money at it.

That’s why a report on the staggering costs of our Iraq intervention, issued Wednesday by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee, is useful. The report noted that Bush has requested a total of $607 billion for the war, and that its actual cost to our economy is $1.3 trillion.

Republican critics of the JEC report, “War At Any Price?” argued that some of its numbers are tendentious. Yes, this study has its moments of tendentiousness. But that doesn’t undercut the importance of the questions it asks. Consider only this number: Interest costs on Iraq-related debt will be more than $23 billion for the 2008 fiscal year. That sum is almost exactly the difference between Bush and Congress on spending levels for the entire budget now being debated.

Why are the costs of the Iraq war not considered part of our larger budget debate? On Tuesday, Bush vetoed Congress’ $606 billion labor, health and education bill because of a $10 billion difference on spending for domestic concerns. But he is asking for a supplemental appropriation of $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — an increase of $46 billion over what he had sought in October.

So it comes down to this: Bush can bust the budget for Iraq, but God forbid that we spend a little more on education.

In the way he’s managing the Iraq and budget debates, the president is trying to evade the essential questions. By focusing on the surge, Bush avoids responsibility for explaining where we might be in Iraq at the end of his term. And by picking symbolic budget fights, he never has to explain how his own policies — his ludicrous initial assumptions about the costs of the war, his refusal to ask for the taxes to fund it — have created the fiscal mess he now decries.

You’d think that facing the verdict of history, not simply an election, the president would be more serious about these things.

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

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.