WASHINGTON -- Each Tomahawk cruise missile fired at Libyan targets in the last several days costs $1.4 million. Given the barrage of missiles, it's no surprise that the total cost for Tomahawks after the first week was nearly $269 million, according to the Pentagon.
When you add bombers, destroyers and assorted other war machinery, Operation Odyssey Dawn cost taxpayers nearly $600 million in the first week; a scaled-down engagement will continue to cost as much as $100 million a week, experts say. Still, in a country as prosperous as this, that's not a ruinous amount of money.
But given the current mindset in Congress -- where politicians are proposing cuts to Head Start, nutritional aid to indigent mothers and health care for the poor -- our Libyan intervention does speak loudly to priorities. How can we afford to save Libyan civilians from the predations of Moammar Gadhafi if we can't afford to save Americans from foreclosures and disease?
Last week, President Barack Obama laid out a reasonable case for his decision to summon Western allies to intervene in Libya, stressing the need to prevent a humanitarian crisis. He pointed out that Gadhafi is an iron-fisted tyrant who thought nothing of bringing in mercenaries, shelling cities and blocking supplies of food and water to citizens who opposed him. I get it: It was an emergency.
But a slow-speed emergency is playing out all over this country, where many of the jobless have been forced to live in cheap motels, go without food and parcel out their children to relatives. If we can't afford more generous assistance to those who cannot find work, how can we afford all those Tomahawk missiles? If we can't afford to fund public health clinics, how can we consider paying for arms to Libyan rebels?
Yet the budget debate here has been all but silent on the costs of a new war. Oh, a few notables have dared to question our spending priorities. A week ago, on NBC's "Meet the Press," the eminently sensible Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., said: "It makes no sense in the front room, where in Congress we are debating seemingly every day the deficits, the debt ceiling situation coming up, the huge economic problems we have -- but in the back room we are spending money on a military situation in Libya."
But few others of his stature seem to have noticed the contradiction between budget hawks' dire predictions of imminent ruin and a war-minded profligacy that props up the military-industrial complex. Many members of Congress are angry that they were barely consulted before the intervention began; fewer are upset that the Libyan action eats away funds that might have been used here at home.
I've been waiting for the newly empowered, tea party-supported cadre of House Republicans to squawk about money spent in Libya, but they, too, have been quiet. This may explain why: According to a recent CNN poll, tea partiers overwhelmingly supported the imposition of a no-fly-zone in Libya. Still, many of them gathered here last week to demand more drastic cuts in federal spending.
It's not only conservatives who've refused to acknowledge warped priorities. So have more than a few liberals. It was liberal interventionists in the Obama administration, after all, who helped persuade the president to use military force against Gadhafi.
And then there's Obama himself. He drew Gadhafi a line in the sand, but he has so far refused to be as forceful with Republicans, who insist on cutting domestic spending before the economy has fully recovered. Indeed, many economists say GOP-favored cuts will end up eliminating jobs.
It's no wonder so many Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. They see a president powerful enough to reach around the world to alleviate suffering but unwilling -- or unable -- to do much to cushion the blows from a brutal recession here at home.