Monday, January 09, 2006

War Costs: Iraq, Vietnam, Ruin

In September 2003, less than six months into the war in Iraq, USA Today reported that the “combined” monthly costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were almost $5 billion, not including the cost of rebuilding, added costs to the Veterans Administration, subsequent health care, and so on. “In Vietnam,” the paper wrote, “the last sustained war the nation fought, the United States spent $111 billion during the eight years of the war, from 1964 to 1972. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $494 billion, an average of $61.8 billion per year, or $5.15 billion per month.” Those costs are now a wishful and distant memory.

In October 2005 the Congressional Research Service calculated that the two wars’ costs have escalated to $7 billion per month, for a total bill, so far, adding up to $357 billion. Iraq accounts for $251 billion of that, Afghanistan $82 billion, and “enhanced base security” another $24 billion. “DOD’s current monthly average spending rate is about $6 billion for Iraq, $1 billion for Afghanistan and $170 million for enhanced base security.” The costs of war in Iraq alone, by those calculations, exceed the costs of Vietnam by at least $2 billion a month, if Iraq is to account for a share of that “enhanced base security” cost. Needless to say, those costs are growing, not declining—notwithstanding President Bush’s “Drop Dead” message to Iraqi reconstruction goals.  

The Congressional Budget Office is estimating that war costs will total $260 billion between 2006 and 20010, assuming that a phased withdrawal begins in 2007. The figures, needless to say, are wildly optimistic. Now comes the estimate by Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize foe economics, 2001; former senior VP and chief economist of the World Bank) and Harvard lecturer Linda Blimes estimating, conservatively, that the cost of the war in Iraq alone will top $2 trillion by 2010. Let’s put that estimate aside for a moment and stick with the $250 billion already spent in Iraq, according to CRS calculations. Then recall any of a series of news reports about what the Bush administration was (and mostly wasn’t) saying about the costs of war in Iraq in January 2003, three months before kick-off. This from a CNN report from January 2: “The White House is downplaying published reports of an estimated $50 billion to $60 billion price tag for a war with Iraq, saying it is "impossible" to estimate the cost at this time. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels told The New York Times in an interview published Tuesday that such a conflict could cost $50 billion to $60 billion -- the price tag of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.”  Of course the White House was downplaying the costs. But it couldn’t do it alone. It had help from the media, who never seriously pursued calculations of what an invasion would cost, never doubted the lies and obfuscations and mealy-mouthed deceptions dribbling out of the White House, and helped crucify Larry Lindsey, the Bush economic adviser, who dared suggest that the war could cost up to $200 billion. He was promptly fired. Congress, meanwhile, was chatting up possibilities of a $93 billion war. Even that was a gross understatement. It isn’t that more relatively correct estimates weren’t being prepared. But as with pre-war intelligence about WMDs, it never mattered how accurate or inaccurate the information was. What mattered, exclusively, was what the Bush administration wanted to hear. And it wasn’t interested in hearing anything about costs. This from a New York Times article on February 28, 2003: Mr. Wolfowitz then dismissed articles in several newspapers this week asserting that Pentagon budget specialists put the cost of war and reconstruction at $60 billion to $95 billion in this fiscal year. He said it was impossible to predict accurately a war’s duration, its destruction and the extent of rebuilding afterward.” No one was demanding absolute accuracy. Only some realism. But to assume that anyone in the administration was looking for realism at any time is to upend everything we now know about the administration.

Bush, incidentally, was quoted in that CNN report as saying that “This economy cannot afford to stand an attack.” He was referring to this American economy (as in, “This American House.”) He was referring to a  terrorist attack. And he was, in the absolute and in retrospect, terribly wrong. Revolting as it is to say, the economy — virtually any western economy — could easily afford, or rather absorb, terrorist attack after terrorist attack. But “This economy” cannot afford a $100 billion-a-year war. It has one on its hands, and with it the certainty of slow-baked ruin à-la-1970s, but in worse, not long from now. In the 1970s, as the United States was recovering from Vietnam and the costs of the Great Society, it could at least bank on a solid financial foundation, relatively little debt, a trade surplus and a budget deficit that looks laughable in retrospect. None of those cushions exist now. But hey: another opportunity to force small (domestic) government down the throats of society. What choice will we have but to cut and run, at home, from every other domestic program that once made this country livable? The administration knew what it was getting into in Iraq. It just didn’t care to be stopped. Deception was part of the plan all along.

One final note by way of a case in point. The CRS report is full of collateral revelations that deserve their own set of congressional hearings: The Department of Defense, the CRS report tells us,  “also used $2.5 billion from prior year monies to prepare for the Iraq war before passage of the joint resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq in October 2002.” There was also the matter of the $7 billion “lost” by the Department of Defense somewhere along the way. Those not-so technical bombshells have, and will, receive barely a peep from either a public or media too infatuated with all things military to question a trampled Constitutional principle here or a lost billion there.