$250 Billion and Counting

Time to come clean about the cost of Iraqi Freedom


The White House has announced that it will ask Congress for an $82 billion supplemental bill to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. That's on top of the $25 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan that was part of the Defense Department's fiscal year 2005 budget the president signed last August.

Taken together with the previous supplemental requests—$75 billion in 2003 and $88 billion in 2004—and given that the U.S. commitment of troops and resources in Iraq is five to six times larger than its commitment in Afghanistan, the latest tally of the cost of the Iraq war is over $200 billion. The U.S. Army announced that it plans to keep 120,000 troops in Iraq for at least two more years, so we should expect another supplemental request of $80 billion or more next year.

Does anyone remember what the administration said the Iraq war would cost? When White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey suggested that going to war against Iraq might cost $100 to $200 billion, he was rebuked and chose to resign three months later.

Citing Office of Management and Budget estimates, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once thought the Iraq mission might cost $50 billion or less. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz once opined that Iraqi oil revenues of $50 to $100 billion, instead of U.S. taxpayer dollars, would pay for the occupation and reconstruction.

Wolfowitz also criticized Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki's estimate that it would take hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to occupy and subdue Iraq as "wildly off the mark." But it's been the administration that has been wildly off the mark when it comes to the price of Iraq.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the president doesn't feel anyone in the administration should be held accountable for all the miscalculations about Iraq. According to Bush, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections. The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."

But accountability is an ongoing process, not a one-time "moment." It is not at all clear that the election results mean the American people want to be stuck footing the bill for a war that could cost more than $300 billion, especially with the cost of the war driving the budget deficit for fiscal year 2004 to a record $427 billion.

That the administration does not want to be held accountable for Iraq is clearly demonstrated by its continued insistence on funding the war with supplemental bills. According to Steve Kosiak, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, supplemental bills "are supposed to be used when there is a surprise. This is no longer a surprise that we are in Iraq."

From the beginning, the Pentagon has claimed that it could not estimate the costs of the Iraq war (and subsequent occupation and reconstruction) because it is impossible to accurately predict the war's duration, its destruction, and the extent of rebuilding afterward.

But that's not even a poor excuse—it's no excuse at all. The federal government is awash in budget analysts. The Pentagon's comptroller's office routinely estimates costs of future weapon systems and programs that are difficult to predict with precision, as do the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office.

It's high time for the administration to level with the American people on the cost of Iraq instead of continuing to string them along. Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has surmised that "we will never achieve democracy and stability without being willing to commit 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have a draft, and have some form of war compensation."

Whether Brzezinski's assessment is right or not, Americans deserve to know what the administration thinks building democracy in Iraq will cost so they can decide for themselves whether they are willing to pay the price and make the necessary sacrifices. That is a hallmark of representative democracy. If we're going to preach it abroad in Iraq, then we ought to practice it here at home.