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Can we afford to secure Iraq, North Korea . . . ?

KAI RYSSDAL: What do you want this election season? Politicians are talking. But they're not necessarily addressing the issues voters care about. The Real Agenda. Iraq's a big one. What you'll hear is back and forth about who's stronger on national security. But there's not much discussion of what the war means for our economic security.

To help us sort it out we've got two of our regular commentators with us. David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley.

David, the first question on The Real Agenda today goes to you. And it's a simple one. Are we getting our money's worth in Iraq?

DAVID FRUM: We walked into a much bigger and tougher fight in Iraq than anybody had anticipated — at least anybody in the Administration anticipated. And that's why this war has been more expensive and more difficult. At this point, the question I think we have to face is one going forward. Which is, what would be the consequences of losing, of cutting short early? And I think even many of those, most of those, who opposed the war at the outset would have to say, at this point to cut things short would be such a calamity that the cost of the war is as nothing compared to losing the war.

RYSSDAL: Bob, let me try to get this to a place where perhaps Americans will ground their interest. And that is not in geopolitics. It really never has been in this country. It is all about the Treasury and how we are spending our precious money.

ROBERT REICH: Well, undoubtedly. This is an extraordinarily expensive initiative. Not just in dollars and cents. I mean, $600 billion to $700 billion a year — that's military plus all of the extras for fighting in Iraq — and then all of the supplementals that have to do with Afghanistan. Well, that's not small change. It means we cannot do what we need to do with regard to education and health care. A lot of other high priority items in the United States are going by the wayside. We also can't do what we need to do in other areas of foreign policy, such as North Korea. The North Koreans know we are bogged down, our hands are tied because we are completely overstretched in the Middle East and, particularly, in Iraq.

FRUM: I strenuously disagree with that. The cost of the Defense budget is the price of the world trading system, it's the price of a stable world order. It's the price of a stable world order, by the way, that largely does its affairs in English and largely does its affairs in ways familiar to Americans. So, Americans get a lot of benefit from underwriting the military architecture of the planet because they are paying for a political architecture that is favorable to the United States. As for problems like North Korea, the things we need to do to contain North Korea are not expensive. That is not the reason you have seen an ineffective American response in North Korea dating back now a dozen years. It is because of a lack of clarity about what the nature of the North Korean problem is.

RYSSDAL: But whether or not they're expensive, David, doesn't negate the fact that we really don't have the money to do it, anyway.

FRUM: The United States can abundantly afford the cost of world architecture that's favorable to the United States. I mean, the United States is today spending about 4 percent of GDP on defense. That's less than it spent in the middle 1980s. Way less than it spent in the Kennedy administration. The United States can afford this bill. And, I think it's one of those things, that if you think defense is expensive, wait'll you see the price of non-defense.

RYSSDAL: Bob?

REICH: You know, I think we have to think about foreign policy in much broader terms. It's not just about the United States creating a world architecture in the short-term. Our security depends upon developing relationships with the rest of the world in which people trust not only our power but our moral authority. They believe that America is a force for good. And what we've squandered, particularly since 2001, is that sense in the rest of the world that we are there, not only to protect the world but we represent good things. Not just democracy but many, many other things that much of the rest of the world wants to aspire to. My concern is we cannot possibly guarantee our own security with so much of the rest of the world thinking of us as the world's bully. And no amount of money is going to reverse that.

RYSSDAL: David Frum, the last word this week goes to you.

FRUM: The countries that are causing difficulty for the United States in the world — China, Iran, North Korea, Russia — are not causing difficulty for the United States because they mistrust America's good intentions. It is precisely because the United States does want a democratic, liberal world order that China, Russia and Iran are so vehemently opposed to what the United States does in the world.

RYSSDAL: Alright, gentlemen, we leave it there for this week. Thank you both, David Frum and Bob Reich.

FRUM: Thank you, Kai. Thank you, Bob.

REICH: Thank you, Kai, and David.

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