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August 1, 2008

Staying Out of Iraq Was the Truest Test for Any Prez Wannabe


by Doug Bandow

John McCain's attempt to sell his presidential candidacy on the basis that he backed the troop surge initiated last year is comical – or pathetic. He supported an unnecessary and disastrous war. He backed the administration's misguided occupation policies for years. And he wants to keep troops in Iraq for 100 years or more. Yes, things in Iraq finally got better after they got worse – much worse than Sen. McCain ever imagined. But thousands of Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead. Tens of thousands in both nations have been injured or maimed. Millions of Iraqis are refugees. Iran has been greatly strengthened. America's international reputation has been savaged. And the U.S. Treasury will bleed red for decades to come. Yet he tells us that his support for the Iraq war is a reason to vote for him for president!

The fact that Sen. McCain has never wavered in his support for George W. Bush's foolish Middle Eastern war demonstrates the former's lack of sound strategic judgment. Indeed, we should not be surprised when Sen. McCain thoughtlessly jokes about bombing Iran, blithely proposes attacking North Korea, and cheerfully pushes for confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over peripheral issues in the Caucasus. And that he demanded a ground war instead of just a bombing campaign against Serbia a decade ago, again over issues of little importance to America.

The enormous economic harm wreaked by the war reinforces his admission last year that "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." After all, Sen. McCain was not alone in believing in the free lunch promised by the Bush administration. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, later improbably promoted to head the World Bank, predicted that the war would pay for itself. Andrew Natsios, head of the Agency for International Development, predicted that the U.S. would have to chip in just $1.7 billion. White House budget director Mitch Daniels forecast total costs of $50 billion to $60 billion. Once the war got going L. Paul Bremer, who headed the occupation authority, allowed that the conflict's price could hit $100 billion. White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey predicted that expenses would run between $100 billion and $200 billion, making him the target of bitter internal administration denunciations.

That was then, this is now.

The Congressional Research Service figures that the Iraq war is now costing about $9.8 billion a month (Afghanistan is running another $2.3 billion monthly). So far Congress has authorized total expenditures of $656 billion for the Iraq imbroglio alone. Wolfowitz and Natsios were never in the game. Daniels' first $50 billion or so went for 2003, which wasn't even a full year. We blew past Bremer's $100 billion sometime in 2004. Lindsey's $200 billion upper bound was breached in 2005. Congress then authorized more than $100 billion for 2006 alone, and spending just kept going up in the following two years. The cost of Iraq will soon outpace that of Vietnam, which consumed $686 billion in 2008 dollars, currently second only to World War II.

The vast bulk of this money has gone to the Defense Department for operations, maintenance, procurement, personnel, and assorted other military functions. DOD not only has had to replace destroyed equipment. It has had to upgrade vehicles and other systems to better protect U.S. personnel from increasingly lethal attacks. Pentagon spending also includes billions for Iraqi security forces, hundreds of millions to repair Iraqi oil facilities, and billions for the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), which underwrites local reconstruction and buys local allegiance. Some $34 billion has been allocated through civilian agencies to diplomatic activities and foreign aid – twenty times Natsios' estimate. Much of that has been stolen or wasted, but that hasn't slowed down the administration, which in the early days flew in planeloads of currency. The Veterans Administration has received $2.5 billion for medical care, and those costs will be rising sharply.

Stuart Brown, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, just issued a new report recommending the end of reconstruction aid, since Iraq will collect some $35 billion in oil revenue next year. And presumably some day military operations will cease. But even then, after some president sometime pulls out America's troops, the war will continue to be the bloody gift that keeps on giving. The very good news is that many wounded soldiers survive attacks that would have left them dead in Vietnam or earlier wars. The bad news is that many of them suffered grievous wounds which will leave them impaired for the rest of their lives. And which will require expensive medical treatment. A serious head wound could end up costing as much as $4 million for lifetime care. Prices for prosthetic limbs range up to about $100,000

The long-term cost estimates are truly frightening. In assessing Afghanistan and Iraq together, last year the Congressional Budget Office figured costs through 2007 to be $604 billion, while outlays between 2008 and 2017 would range from $570 billion to $1,055 billion, assuming major troop reductions. After tossing in interest payments, CBO estimated that total outlays for both wars might run about $2.4 trillion, with $1.9 trillion attributable to Iraq. Economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz have broadened the expenses considered to include higher energy costs caused by the conflict, the reduced quality of life of wounded veterans, and the economic cost of diverting economic resources from the civilian economy to the war effort. They estimate that the price of the Iraq war could eventually hit $3 trillion.

John Lott, among others, argues that this number is inflated, and maybe so. But even if one knocks a trillion dollars off the estimate – putting it at about where the CBO ends up – the result still is an obscene amount of money to pay for a war that has actually made us less secure at home and more hated abroad. So far the Congress has obligated more than $2000 per person to fight a manifestly counterproductive conflict. That's eight grand for a family of four.

This will be the legacy of George W. Bush, John McCain, and the passel of ivory tower neocons who joyously took their nation into war in Iraq. Even after the war ends, the rest of us will continue to pay, and pay dearly. Military families will forever mourn lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers. Wounded soldiers and their families will forever cope with debilitating injuries. Iraqis will forever be scarred by the transformation of their society into a national charnel house. America will forever suffer a loss in respect and awe abroad.

These are serious enough costs. Then there is the financial price. The federal government has amassed a national debt of $9.5 trillion, and the deficit next year will add another half trillion dollars in red ink. The cost of the incipient bail-out of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae could reach $1 trillion, depending upon how many of their mortgages ultimately fail. The total unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare exceeds $100 trillion. The Iraq war seems likely to add another $1 trillion to $2 trillion to the public debt, assuming violence continues to fade. Is there no end?

Thanks John McCain. Yes, you'd make a really great military commander-in-chief.

The success of the surge – and even more the effect of Muktada al-Sadr's ceasefire alongside the falling out between al-Qaeda and the Sunni tribes – is good news, but does not salvage a war gone bad. The most important decision the current president had to make was whether to go to war in the first place. He failed to make the right decision. Also wrong was John McCain, one of the many callous cheerleaders for war. Because of this disastrous decision, we are going be paying the costs of the Iraq war for decades to come. But that could end up being just one of many expensive wars with John McCain as commander-in-chief.

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  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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