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The Real Cost of the Iraq War

Finding the tipping point for Vietnam -- and for Iraq

| Thu Feb. 23, 2006 3:00 AM EST

In the center of the home page, an upward-racing ticker, presented in a large, red font, keeps a steady tally of the money spent for the U.S. war in Iraq. Every time I visit, it takes a moment to sort through the counter's decimal places and make sense of it. The hundreds of dollars fly by too quickly to track. The thousands change a little faster than once a second. As I write, the ticker reads $239,302,273,144.

It is worth staring at the site for a while to see the vast sums accumulate. Yet this exercise in wartime accounting quickly becomes unsatisfying. First of all, few Americans have any frame of reference for evaluating a number like $239 billion. The National Priorities Project, the organization hosting the counter, attempts to remedy this by allowing visitors to compare war costs with expenditures on pre-school, health care, and public housing, noting, for example, that this much money could provide basic immunizations for every child born worldwide in the next 79 years. Even then, the incomprehensibly large number ticking away on screen turns out to be no measure at all of what we will eventually pay for the war. Depending on what estimate you use, it could be off by almost a factor of ten. After all, it lacks a place for the trillions.

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So how much will the war cost? The question occasionally appears in the media, never a new issue, never a settled one either. Still, there are some certainties about the costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. One is that it keeps going up. The President has now submitted a "guns over butter" budget to Congress that increases Pentagon spending to $440 billion, while taking away funds from social services at home and development assistance abroad. One of the great curiosities of this huge sum is that it does not include funding for the wars we are actually fighting. Those are appropriated separately -- this year, the White House will reportedly be asking for another $120 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly equal to what it spent in 2005.

Another certainty of wartime accounting is that the cost of the war in Iraq will remain far higher than the Bush administration wants anyone to think. It's already stratospherically beyond the initial estimate of $50-60 billion used to sell its war to the public. That number was meant to conjure memories of the previous Gulf War -- Operation Desert Storm -- an engagement Americans recall as swift and relatively painless, in part because an array of allies helped pay for it. The U.S. ponied up only $7 billion for that conflict. The administration's other magic trick was taking Larry Lindsey, the White House economic advisor who publicly suggested in late 2002 that a military return to Iraq would cost closer to $100-200 billion, and making him disappear.

In the years since Baghdad fell, several analysts have sought better estimates for the war's true cost. In August 2005, Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver at the Institute for Policy Studies issued a paper predicting that the total cost could reach $700 billion at the then-current spending level of $5.6 billion per month. Like the tally, this figure included only direct expenditures.

Last month, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda Bilmes released a report that took a wider view. Hinting at the human cost of the occupation -- which, of course, requires its own ghastly page in the ledger of wartime accounting -- the report factored in the government-assigned "value of statistical life" for troops killed in combat. (It did not include the loss of Iraqi lives.) It tallied items such as the costs of health care for wounded veterans, increased recruitment spending for a hard-up Pentagon, and the opportunity costs of more productive public investments that might have been made if funds had not been diverted overseas. Following Congressional Budget Office predictions for troop deployment, the report considers the possibilities of full U.S. withdrawal by 2010 to 2015. All told, the two economists put the cost to the U.S. at between $1 trillion (their most "conservative" estimate) and $2.2 trillion (their "moderate" one).

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