Obama will announce the revised Afghanistan strategy next Tuesday at West Point. I consider it the right optic: looking the cadets in the face and telling them why he’s escalating the war — a war the cadets will fight as very green officers — and how he intends to bring it to a just conclusion. In the spirit of not hiding the real costs of the war comes this, from the Los Angeles Times:

The suggestion that a surtax be used to help fund the increasingly unpopular war, though unlikely to pass, illustrated the fiscal anxieties that the president will face if he asks Congress to write another big-ticket item into the budget.

“There is serious unrest in our caucus” over whether the U.S. can afford the war, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a conference call with economists and bloggers. “We have to look at that war with a green eyeshade on.”

I see very little evidence to support the assertion that the tax is “unlikely to pass.” It looks rather like a prerequisite for escalating the war in Congress. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee has railed in favor of paying for the war as the centrists demand paying for domestic policy initiatives. And it’s important to remember that this is a Congress that, as Pelosi says, has a great deal of anxiety and antipathy to the war already. For eight years Congress wrote blank checks for wars without strategies for successful conclusions. They did so, at least at first, because they felt that there would be no way the Bush administration could wage wars indefinitely and no administration could actually lack strategies for ending them. And here we are.

Conservatives, as I noted at my day job, are on the horns of a dilemma. Their catechisms hold that they cannot support tax increases and that they must support escalation in Afghanistan. (As in there is actually a document that says that.) The Share Our Sacrifice Act heightens the contradiction. But genuine pro-war conservatives really ought to support the war tax. That unease in the Democratic caucus that Pelosi alluded to? It’s real. And the surest way to buy political space for Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is to allow that anxiety to be channeled into the war tax. Yoking the war to the public in whose name it is waged will allow for a healthy public pressure to be placed on the Obama administration. Anyone who has covered the military during the past eight years — and especially those of us who’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan — has heard endlessly the military lament that only a select and small proportion of the country is actually at war. The war tax ends all that. I won’t be revealing any confidences when I say that one military listserv I’m on is mightily impressed by the idea for that reason. You want to support the troops, right?

To be clear, I have no illusions that the tax actually will attract conservative support. Matthew Yglesias lays out the dynamic extremely well, describing a different case:

First, Barack Obama proposes something sensible and centrist like a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax hikes. Then this becomes defined as the extreme left pole of the debate. Then because Max Baucus and Kent Conrad are moderates, it needs to be balanced further in the direction of spending cuts. Then the administration embraces that proposal and it becomes defined as the extreme left pole of the debate. Then because Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln are moderates, it needs to be balanced even further in the direction of spending cuts. Then because the package is more than zero percent tax increases, it passes with at most the support of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and conservatives denounce the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who want to punish workers and seniors alike in order to finance giveaways to ACORN and death panels. Then Alan Greenspan applauds politely, and then when the GOP gets back into office they propose large cuts in income taxes on the wealthy and he applauds that loudly.

The war tax, in other words, does the right thing while exposing the machinations of an unserious and hysterical political opposition. Why in the world would the Democrats not put it on the table? The pro-war conservatives who signed on to the Foreign Policy Initiative’s letter to Obama urging Afghanistan escalation have a choice to make, and it will be a defining one.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman