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Iraq: Weighing the costs of war

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The war in Iraq, which began 15 years ago this month, was an unnecessary conflict spurred on by misleading claims about Saddam’s Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and his regime’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda. But there was another key element of the George W. Bush administration’s sales pitch for the war — the notion that it would be cheap and easy.

In February 2002, a year before the start of the conflict, former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman notoriously suggested that the Iraq war would be a cake walk, resulting in “the greatest victory in America’s war on terrorism.”

We all know how that turned out.

{mosads}Just a few weeks before the start of the war, White House budget director Mitch Daniels suggested that a successful invasion of Iraq would cost at most $50 billion to $60 billion — a huge sum by any standard but the Pentagon’s. But Daniels’ projection was so low as to be laughable in retrospect.


The direct budgetary costs of the Iraq war alone have reached well over $800 billion, or roughly 16 times the Bush administration’s estimate. As the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has noted, the full costs of America’s post-9/11 wars, of which Iraq is a central component, have now reached the astounding sum of $5.6 trillion. The Brown University estimate includes long-term costs that are rarely taken into account when the decision to go to war is being considered, like the lifetime costs of caring for veterans of the conflict.

As a candidate, President Trump denounced what he saw as the trillions wasted on the wars in Iraq and the broader Middle East, which he repeatedly referred to not only as a disaster, but as the “worst decision” in American history. Unfortunately, he has done little to act on this fact. Instead, Trump has largely doubled down on the wars he inherited from President Obama, from increasing troops in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, to upping air strikes in Somalia and Libya, to clearing the way for the sale of more munitions for use in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen.

While none of our current wars are running up the kinds of costs incurred at the peak of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the United States had well over 200,000 “boots on the ground,” they are costly nonetheless.

Our perpetual wars have provided a handy rationale for the Pentagon to consume our tax dollars in amounts that are near peak post-World War II levels. Nowhere was this more evident than in the budget deal reached by Congress and the administration last month, which calls for a cumulative total of $165 billion in increased Pentagon spending in the next two years alone, pushing the national security budget up to a hefty $716 billion.

The human costs of our post-9/11 wars are almost incalculable — over 350,000 deaths on all sides, including over 200,000 civilians and 7,000 deaths of U.S. troops. Hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women now suffer with physical and psychological damage, including a high prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injuries. In fact, 1 million of the 2 million U.S. troops who have cycled through our recent wars have applied for and received lifetime disability benefits. And the security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan not only have not stabilized, but in some ways have actually gotten worse. 

Fifteen years on, one clear lesson of Iraq is that the executive branch needs to make an honest effort to estimate the costs of a conflict before sending U.S. troops into harm’s way. Think of it as the foreign policy equivalent of truth in advertising. Weighing the costs of war more carefully could be one way to prevent U.S. engagement in unnecessary conflicts. A supplemental measure that could give the public a clearer understanding of the costs and consequences of perpetual conflict would be to impose a “war tax” so that the costs of a military intervention are paid along the way, not put on the shoulders of future generations.

Contrary to the claims of the advocates of the 2003 intervention in Iraq, no war is ever “cheap and easy.” The sooner we understand that, the more likely that we won’t make a colossal mistake on the scale of the U.S. intervention in Iraq ever again.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

Tags 9/11 Donald Trump International Iraq War on Terror William D. Hartung

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