Blood and Treasure

After weeks of public evasion, the Bush administration is finally coming clean about the cost of the American-led occupation of Iraq. Well, sort of, in that vague Bush style.

| Thu Aug. 28, 2003 3:00 AM EDT

On Wedesday, occupation overlord L. Paul Bremer told the Washington Post that the final price tag for the Bush administration's mission in Iraq will reach "several tens of billions" of dollars — and he admitted that Iraqi oil sales will pay for only a tiny fraction of that. Already, Peter Slevin and Vernon Loeb of the Post observe, the Pentagon is spending $4 billion a month on the occupation. But that spending doesn't begin to cover the real cost.

"A State Department official said the Bush administration is preparing to seek a 'huge' supplemental spending bill from Congress. Administration sources also said the U.S.-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority is running so low on funds that the White House is considering seeking an emergency infusion next month to cover the organization's bills."

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But what exactly does "several tens of billions" mean? Slevin and Loeb point out — as if they really need to — that neither Bremer nor President Bush seem inclined to provide any real details. Niko Matsakis and Elias Vlanton, the activists behind the Cost of War web site, aren't so shy. Using existing figures provided by the administration, the pair have developed a dynamic cost clock tallying the war's bottom line.

Bremer's announcement finally does away with the pre-war White House assertion that Iraqi oil revenues would cover much of the cost of the rebuilding. In fact, while Iraqi oil wells were producing 2.5 to 3 million barrels a day before the war, current production has fallen to just 1.7 million barrels. And even if production returns to prewar levels, Bremer admits the income will not come close to meeting Iraq's needs.

The new cost projection — vague as it is — comes on the heels of another glimpse into the ugly reality of the Iraqi mission. As just about every news organization in the world noted, on Monday the number of GI's killed since Bush declared an end to 'major combat operations' surpassed the number killed during those operations. As the editorial writers at The New York Times observe, the unavoidable conclusion is that "the United States will pay a high price in blood and treasure" if Bush sticks to his unilateralist guns and refuses to let the UN play a role in post-war Iraq.

So, will the administration rethink its entrenched position? Yesterday afternoon, Douglas Jehl of The New York Times reported that, after months of rejecting the possibility of UN leadership in Iraq, Bush is beginning to publicly ponder the idea. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that a UN-led multinational force was just "one idea being explored" this week. But even that admission is a sort of watershed for the go-it-alone Bush team.

Still, with or without UN leadership in Iraq, the administration's immidiate future is fraught with trouble. America's willingness to give Bush another four years has weakened, and the recently-released national deficit predictions are bound to increase American frustrations.

So, can Bush keep ahead in the polls and jump-start the economy while coming out with an economically-feasible long-term for pacifying and rebuilding Iraq? In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor pollster Del Ali says that question is very much in doubt.

"'He's in a really precarious spot,' says Del Ali. 'I think the public has an understanding that it's not going to be overnight regime change. But there are three factors he's got to be aware of that could backfire on him...If the economy turns for the better, the public can be more forgiving about Iraq...But if the economy doesn't turn, everything magnifies for him."

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