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September 21, 2005

'The Most Expensive Military Effort in 60 Years'


An interview with Erik Leaver

by Kevin Zeese

The Institute for Policy Studies recently published an analysis of the cost of the Iraq War and occupation, "The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of War and the Case for Bringing Home the Troops." The study was co-authored by two prominent researchers and writers, Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver. Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the author of the forthcoming Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power (October 2005). Leaver is a research fellow at IPS and serves as the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy in Focus project.

Kevin Zeese: Your study, "The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of War and the Case for Bringing Home the Troops," examines the economic and human costs of the Iraq war and occupation.  Let's start with the economic costs.  How does the cost of the Iraq war compare to previous wars in the last century?

Leaver: The Iraq War is the most expensive military effort in the last 60 years.

To put Iraq war spending figures in perspective, the monthly cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars now rivals the average monthly cost of the Vietnam War. Operations costs in Iraq are estimated at $5.6 billion per month in 2005, while the average cost of U.S. operations in Vietnam was $5.1 billion per month, adjusting for inflation. In current dollars, the Vietnam War cost $600 billion.

Zeese: There have been numerous spending bills related to the Iraq war.  How much has been appropriated so far? What is coming down the pipeline?  Where is the money going?

Leaver: In 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was fired after predicting that an Iraq war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. As it turned out, Lindsey low-balled the cost.

Congress has approved four spending bills for Iraq with funds totaling $204.4 billion and is in the process of approving a "bridge fund" for an additional $45.3 billion to cover operations until another supplemental spending package can be passed, most likely slated for spring 2006. Rumors have the next supplemental pegged at $30 billion.

The lion's share of the funding goes toward daily operations followed next by purchases of new equipment. Money is also spent on maintenance of equipment and in providing funds to coalition members and in training Iraqi troops. Unlike the hurricane relief efforts, where money is specifically targeted to victims, Iraqis are not receiving much of this funding.

Zeese: What is the impact of the cost of the Iraq war on the federal budget?  We've heard talk that the budget cuts related to the Louisiana flooding were impacted by the Iraq war. Is there any truth to this?  

Leaver: These expenses have long-term effects on the U.S. economy. In August 2005, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost of continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at current levels would nearly double the projected federal budget deficit over the next 10 years.

In June 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, said to the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay." Ron Fournier of the Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. Clearly, tradeoffs were made in the budget process. And while funds were being cut for projects at home, the administration was pushing for facilities in Iraq such as the $500 million embassy.

Zeese: How about the impact on other social programs and veterans benefits?

Leaver: The Bush administration's combination of massive spending on the war and tax cuts for the wealthy means less money for social spending. The administration's FY 2006 budget, which does not include any funding for the Iraq War, takes a hard line with domestic spending slashing or eliminating more than 150 federal programs. It also virtually freezes funding for domestic discretionary programs other than homeland security. Among the programs the Bush administration seeks to eliminate: vocational and adult education, a number of programs associated with community development, environmental protection agency grants, low-income home energy assistance, disease control, substance abuse, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and public safety.

The VA [Veterans Administration] projected that 23,553 veterans would return from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005 and seek medical care. In June 2005, the VA secretary, Jim Nicholson, revised this number to 103,000. The miscalculation led to a shortfall of $273 million in the VA budget for 2005, and with between 1/4 and 1/3 of all returning soldiers needing care at a VA facility, these costs are going to skyrocket in future years.

Zeese: What is the impact of the war/occupation on the Iraqi economy?

Leaver: Unemployment figures today range from 20 percent to 60 percent. By comparison, during the Great Depression, U.S. unemployment peaked at 25 percent. The effects have been disastrous for the Iraqi people. Up to 60 percent of the population depends on food handouts, and the average income has dropped from $3,000 in the 1980s to $800 in 2004. The Iraqi government, under budgetary pressures, recently warned that government ministries "can carry out their duties with only about 40-60 percent of their employees." This would be devastating, as the government employs nearly one-half of Iraq's 6.5 million strong workforce.

The U.S. government says it has tried to respond by involving more Iraqis in reconstruction, but acknowledges that it is only employing 122,533 Iraqis in the civilian sector. Furthermore, only $7.7 billion out of $18.4 billion slated for reconstruction was spent by August 2005.

It is clear that high levels of unemployment are fueling the resistance by putting, in the words of one U.S. Army officer, "too many angry young men, with no hope for the future, on the street." This has become a deadly combination as the going rate in parts of Baghdad for planting roadside bombs is between $100-300 while the salary for an Iraqi soldier can reach $340 per month.

Zeese: There have been inconsistent reports about whether the U.S. is building permanent military bases in Iraq.  I've had activists who have talked to Senator John Warner, who claims there are no permanent bases being built. Other members of Congress like Jim McGovern (D-Wash.) say there is money being appropriated to build permanent bases.  What is the truth here? If such bases are being built, how many are there and what is their purpose?

Leaver: Despite what many U.S. officials state, militarily, the United States is planning for a long-term stay in Iraq. The most recent spending bill in Congress for the Iraq war contained $236.5 million for permanent base construction. The original request for these funds from the Department of Defense stated, "This proposal will allow the Army to provide temporary facilities and in some very limited cases, permanent facilities. These facilities include barracks, administrative space, vehicle maintenance facilities, aviation facilities, mobilization-demobilization barracks, and community support facilities."

Currently, the U.S. operates out of approximately 106 locations across the country. That's a huge presence in a country the size of California. Originally many of these bases were designated with unabashed names like "Camp Slayer," "Forward Operating Base Steel Dragon," and "Camp Headhunter." But by late 2004, many were renamed to more subtle names like Camp Prosperity, Camp Liberty, and Camp Freedom. In May 2005, plans for concentrating U.S. troops into four massive bases positioned geographically in the north, south, east, and west were reported.

Zeese: What is the impact of the Iraq war on security?  Is it undermining terrorist networks or expanding them?  Is it going to have any impact on security in the United States, or will it keep the terrorists fighting us on foreign soil as the president claims?

Leaver: While no Iraqi terror threat previously existed before the president led our nation to war, a National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats at the CIA said in January 2005 that the Iraq war has now provided terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills." Others at the CIA agree. A May 2005 assessment says Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was.

Experts from the nonpartisan London think tank Chatham House wrote in July 2005, "[The Iraq War] gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring bin Laden to justice."

While foreign fighters are seen as the most violent groups in Iraq, their numbers have been estimated to be around 1,000 out of a resistance ranging between 16,000 and 40,000. Instead of being long-term mercenaries, new investigations by the Saudi Arabian government and an Israeli think tank found that the majority of foreign fighters are not former terrorists and instead became radicalized by the war itself a troubling statistic given that according to the Bush administration, one major goal of this war is to stem future terrorism.

Coupled with what we've seen in the aftermath of the hurricane, the Iraq war has clearly made us less safe, at home and abroad.

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Kevin Zeese is a director of Democracy
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