The shocking cost of the Iraq War

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A prescient 85-page monograph published in 2002, and a new book by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, starkly reveal – from an economic perspective – the disastrous nature of the Iraq War.

One of the strengths of the American system of government is that a vibrant civil society and private sector usually keep track of what the government is doing, often challenging the president and party in power with independent research and analysis. A case in point is the current debate in the United States that has been sparked by a troubling new book just published by Nobel Prize winner economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes.

Entitled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, the book is both a sobering analysis of the real cost of this (and any other) war, as well as a sharp indictment of the Bush administration’s array of concealment and self-deception in selling the Iraq war to an angry American public that perhaps saw the campaign as a legitimate response to the terror of September 11, 2001.

When I listened to the authors at a panel discussion earlier this week at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, along with founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, Paul Rieckhoff, I found myself in the familiar position: deeply impressed by the diligence, professionalism and courage of individual Americans such as these three, but simultaneously profoundly shocked by the recklessness of the Bush administration in waging this war and unleashing the consequences that it has.

The authors’ research offers a chilling reminder of exactly how costly the Iraq war has been and will continue to be, in both economic and human terms. Their estimate of trillion (or three thousand billion dollars) for the total cost of the war and its consequences covers the estimated 0 billion cash cost of having the troops on the ground, along with a few other major costs that are routinely ignored in the public discussion of the conflict.

These include: 

a) disability and compensation for veterans (1.7 million troops have been deployed to date, with 70,000 wounded or diseased and 120,000 having already sought mental health care); 

b) replenishing the military to its normal level of soldiers and equipment; and, 

c) repaying the debt (with interest) that was raised to pay for this war, which has been fully funded by borrowing.

Other costs that can be calculated include the lost economic contributions of those who went to war, the withdrawal from the economy of family members who quit work to care for loved ones injured in the war, and the cost to allies and Iraq. Rieckhoff concluded, “We now understand the true costs of the war much better, in economic and human terms,” noting also that one of three veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has sought help for some kind of mental health issue.

Among the conclusions the authors draw are three key ones:

• the U.S. government needs better accounting systems that take into account both the current cash costs and the payments that will accrue later;

• comprehensive accounting should tally budgetary and economic costs of war along with the costs paid by society (medical costs, higher oil prices, experienced workers who quit jobs to care for injured family members, etc.); and,

• the government should fully fund a war and let the citizens feel the pain of the full cost of waging war.

Baines concludes: “The seminal issues of the Iraq war for Americans are about accountability and transparency.”

Perhaps the most depressing thing is that all this was predicted before the war. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was reading through a prescient 85-page monograph published in 2002, well before the war, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, entitled War with Iraq: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives.

Its five authors (Carl Kaysen, Steven Miller, Martin Malin, William Nordhaus, John Steinbruner) methodically went through the potential consequences of a war, including many of the scenarios that have materialized, such as rising energy costs, a prolonged conflict that keeps the United States in Iraq, America’s loss of respect around the world, rising resistance to the projection of American power around the world, and greater instability throughout the Middle East. If George W. Bush’s boundless optimism turns out to be wrong, Miller predicted accurately, “this will turn out to be a very costly and possibly counterproductive adventure.”

When I had a chat at Harvard this week with Martin Malin, now director of Harvard’s Project on Managing the Atom, he recalled that theirs was just one of several such attempts to predict the consequences of the war, aiming to respond to any real threat from Iraq in a more rational manner than war.

That pre-war analysis, and the publication of the Stiglitz-Bilmes book today, remind us that skeptics of war should be listened to more carefully in the future. This is especially true in moments of political and emotional trauma, when populist anger and political demagoguery can lead otherwise sensible societies into irrational — and very costly — foreign policy adventures.

— Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Source: Middle East Online

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