by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & new Washington Post/ABC News poll says nearly half (45 percent) of Americans say the war in Iraq is their top issue for the 2008 presidential election, while 29 percent say the economy and jobs will dictate how they cast their vote.

Upon closer inspection, however, the two issues are really one. The price of the war is so unexpectedly staggering that it is spilling over into the greater American economy. For a real-time, cold-water-in-your-face wake-up, check out the running tally at the National Priorities Project Website, where the tally of the money already spent in Iraq is spinning closer to the $500 billion mark every second. George W. Bush's initial estimate: $50 billion.

And now we have a new request for 2008 of an additional $196.5 billion. For a single year. And that's just the tip of the spending iceberg; current estimates from the Congressional Budget Office put the overall cost of fighting the war on terror, in all its various forms, at $2.4 trillion through 2017. Of course the cost in lives lost is incalculable.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ut freedom, as we all know, isn't free. We've survived dark days in the past, and lucky for us, as Dick Cheney famously pointed out, deficits don't matter -- right?

It is true that the American economy is a force of awesome power, but lately the cracks are showing. That's scaring a lot of really smart people. Consider that the price of gold -- the last refuge of the fearful -- is at a 27-year high. Or that the bounce from the latest rate cut only resulted in a daylong rally. Markets are addicted to good news, but there's none to be found. Oil has been flirting with the $100-per-barrel mark, and perhaps $4 a gallon at the pump. And despite what the rigged "core" inflation figures say, the cost of living is soaring -- food has increased by 6 percent over the past year, and energy by 12 percent (they don't count either in the "core" inflation figures). But scariest of all is the dollar, now even with the Canadian dollar for the first time since 1976 and down more than 10 percent over the past year.

Iraq is the cause, as deficit spending is dragging the dollar down, which brings us back to Dick Cheney. When the dollar was king, there was a nugget of truth to the idea that deficits don't matter. When everyone wants dollars, you can run deficits and the dollar can stay strong because people still covet them. The Chinese have been collecting our dollars in the form of loans to pay for Iraq. (We owe them between $1 trillion and $2 trillion -- nobody's really sure.) But recently other nations have been spreading their risk. Russia, for example, has gone from having 90 percent of its reserves in dollars to about 45 percent today, according to ABC News.

If the Chinese and others decide to stop collecting our dollars, we would find out very quickly that operating at a deficit and being in debt both matter. A lot. While we wait to see what the Chinese do, interest payments on the national debt have become the fastest-growing piece of federal spending.

It's been a spectacular reversal, as the United States enjoyed a budget surplus just before Bush took office. And both parties are to blame; once upon a time the Republicans had a balanced budget amendment in their quaint little Contract with America, and Democrats seem to sign any blank check necessary to keep from being tagged as sissies. Add it all up and -- voila! -- we're the world's biggest debtor nation. (And only 25 years after we were the planet's biggest creditor nation.)

History shows that running out of money can be a terminal condition. Let's review: Rome spent cash it didn't have, consumed voraciously, and when the Caesars ran out of bread and circuses, the people lost interest and the Germanic hordes took over.

After World War II, the British Empire, broke and overextended, found out the world didn't really need them any more. America knows the power of currency; it was President Eisenhower who provided the deathblow to the British pound -- and thus the Empire -- during the Suez Crisis.

Then there's the Soviet Union, which some historians believe dissolved as a result of spending too much, especially in its disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan. Carter administration officials pushed clandestinely to draw the USSR into what Zbigniew Brzezinski called the "Afghan trap." Once in the trap, those same neocons who would later dream up the Iraq invasion funneled arms to the mujahideen. One of them, of course, was mass murderer Osama bin Laden, and on a recent videotape he cited the lesson he learned.

"We, alongside the mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat," bin Laden said. "We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hat's pretty chilling, especially when it's clear nobody in D.C. is listening. And that's probably why, among Republicans anyway, Ron Paul is getting the most ardent support. Actual common sense comes out of his mouth, not the kind of faith-based economic jibber-jabber we keep hearing from the rest.

"As the war in Iraq surges forward, and the administration ponders military action against Iran, it's important to ask ourselves an overlooked question," Paul wrote in a recent editorial. "Can we really afford it? The problem is that government finances war by borrowing and printing money, rather than presenting a bill directly in the form of higher taxes. When the costs are obscured, the question of whether any war is worth it becomes distorted."

Hopefully we can afford it. Maybe, just this once, all the laws of economics and all the lessons of history will be suspended and America will avoid a recession as a side effect of the deficit spending in Iraq. But if we can't stop writing post-dated checks and if the incredible shrinking dollar does its worst, we will have only ourselves to blame.

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