The Cost of War in Retrospect

Three years have passed since the United States invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. But not all anniversaries should be celebrated. Like previous wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Iraq war is becoming much more difficult and costly than optimistic hawks predicted, while any benefits remain hypothetical and elusive.

I wrote a few articles on "the economics of war" before this war began. Days before the invasion, I predicted that "the costs (of war) would be closer to $200 billion," rather than the $50 billion to $60 billion the administration claimed. I was talking about direct military costs for the United States alone, and only in Iraq (not Afghanistan, which I regard as a defensive move). Because I envisioned 25 percent more troops but only two years of intense fighting, my seemingly exaggerated $200 billion estimate has already turned out to be too low.

Linda Bilmes of Harvard and Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz prepared an impressive new paper on the cost of the Iraq war for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They calculate the U.S. cost of military operations as $251 billion through November. For comparison, William Nordhaus of Yale estimated the direct cost of the Vietnam War at $494 billion and the Korean War at $336 billion. But those wars are over, while this one is escalating. The cost of the Iraq war rose 18 percent last year.

If U.S. troops do not come home until 2010, Bilmes and Stiglitz believe the costs could exceed $1 trillion. When it comes to "staying the course" beyond 2008, however, we have to ask that same question I asked in 2003: "Would U.S. voters put up with that?" I speculated that a prolonged and messy Iraq war could have the same effect on Bush’s popularity that Vietnam had on Lyndon Johnson’s poll ratings. Hawks accused me of bashing the president, but they are the ones who bashed the president.

After adding Afghanistan and such related expenses as reconstruction and foreign aid, the Bilmes-Stiglitz estimate reaches $357 billion so far, and growing by more than $7 billion every month.

The biggest cost of war, of course, is measured in lives, not dollars. The Associated Press counted at least 2,282 U.S. military deaths in Iraq by March 1, nearly all of whom were killed after the invasion ended. Bilmes and Stiglitz estimate at least 257 military deaths among other coalition countries. There have also been about 17,000 Americans wounded and an estimated 30,000 Iraqis killed, many of them civilians.

Balance requires weighing such costs against benefits. A study last fall by Scott Wallsten and Katrina Kosec of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center made an admittedly imprecise estimate that savings from people not being killed by Saddam’s regime, and from not trying to enforce the corrupt U.N. sanctions, totaled about $116 billion, while their estimate of global costs of the Iraq war (including damage to Iraq) was $428 billion. They did not include intangible "benefits of a stable democratically elected government in Iraq, should one emerge."

Those who want to count better roads and schools in Iraq among the war’s benefits would be best advised to not test that argument in this year’s congressional elections. American voters would rather have their taxes spent on better roads and schools at home.

I remain surprised that others remain surprised the Iraq war has been so difficult and costly. It doesn’t surprise me. Here are a few excerpts from past columns:

— May 2002: "The role of the military is to protect U.S. citizens. There may be some perfectly sensible reason for the United States to wage war against Iraq, but we are entitled to a better explanation than what we have been hearing. Starting wars is easier than ending them, as we learned in Vietnam. Then and now, vague and hypothetical future dangers are not a high enough standard for risking the lives of American soldiers."

— November 2002: "My best guess is that war and its aftermath would be more costly and difficult than the optimists admit. … Perhaps the biggest risk of a war with Iraq is that it would divert the nation’s security resources from fighting al-Qaida to fighting Saddam, and from homeland security to foreign affairs. … It is impossible to devote 100 percent of resources to two or three tasks at the same time."

 — March 2003: "Iraq’s southern Shiites, western Sunnis and northern Kurdish tribes have been held together by brute force, and they may prove no more cohesive a ‘nation’ than Yugoslavia. Some Iraqis who welcome liberation may violently resist occupation. Despite heroic talk about building a model democracy in Iraq, just keeping the place from coming unglued could be a chore."

— October 2003: "In ‘The Mouse That Roared,’ a 1959 Peter Sellers movie, the tiny country of Fenwick declares war on the United States in the hopes that it will quickly lose and then receive oodles of postwar aid. Replace Fenwick with Iraq, and you get a pretty good idea of what some people mean by ‘rebuilding’ Iraq — namely, a potentially endless transfer of funds from U.S. taxpayers to Iraq. … Rather than ‘rebuilding the old Iraq,’ the Iraqis themselves are going to have to build a new Iraq — a process that requires more wisdom and less dependence on foreign aid. The Iraqis are the only ones who have the knowledge and incentive to get it right."

The Washington establishment is finally starting to complain, though timidly, about the incredible overgrowth of federal spending and borrowing during the last five years. In too many of these discussions, however, the Iraq war is not the tiny mouse that roared, but the giant elephant that polite Republicans are supposed to ignore.