By Richard Reeves
LOS ANGELES -- God forbid critics of the war on Iraq should compare it with the war in Vietnam. But perhaps it is worth mentioning that the liberation of Iraq is now costing more each month than the preservation of the Republic of South Vietnam did more than 30 years ago.
As the admitted direct cost of the war reached $250 billion last week -- and the White House asked for $120 billion more on Thursday -- new analyses estimate that the invasion of Iraq could end up costing $2 trillion before it is over.
If you remember, the White Houses own economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, was fired for predicting, in September 2002, six months before the invasion, that the total cost of the war might reach between $100 billion and $200 billion. What I (and perhaps others who questioned the wisdom of the war before it began) remember is the hundreds of e-mails and letters I received after I quoted Lindsey and used the higher figure as more likely. Moron and traitor were among the more polite epithets of the day.
Numbers can be misleading, of course. Some, such as the long-term cost of treating damaged survivors of battle, can be exaggerated or minimized. Some can be hidden in other budgets or drawn from confusing off-budget accounts. And even the most accurate audits and projections, while they translate all the numbers into current dollar amounts, rarely mention that the U.S. economy is much bigger than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, so that while the Vietnam War at times was using almost 10 percent of the gross national product, this one and the war in Afghanistan might be in the 2 percent range.
But the exact figures are not the issue. The Washington issue is that the Bush administration has been lying from day one about the cost of this preventative war of choice. The original White House estimate of the total war cost was $75 billion, including the destruction of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, whose fiscal acumen won him the presidency of the World Bank, even offered the theory that the war would be self-financing, paid for by Iraqs oil production. Thats rich. And so are oil producers everywhere.
The war, in fact, is a factor in the escalating cost of petroleum products here and everywhere else in the world. Leaving that aside as you watch the gas-pump digits rise to Super Bowl numbers, two anti-war research institutes, the International Relations Center and the Institute for Policy Studies, estimate that the wars cost per citizen has reached $727 -- or close to $3,000 for a family of four. By the end of this year, those figures should reach about $1,300 per citizen, or more than $5,000 for that family of four.
That calculation was based on a very conservative estimate of war costs to date of $204 billion. But even with that low-balling, those billions could have provided health care for 46 million Americans without health insurance, the hiring of 3.5 million elementary school teachers, or the construction of 2 million units of affordable housing. Its money lost in the fog of war -- or perhaps it will be used to do wonderful things for us all by Halliburton and the other defense contractors and private militaries being paid to make Iraq into Iowa with oil.
One final point. One of the lessons we supposedly learned in Vietnam was that foreign intervention can no longer prevail in civil wars. I happened to run into a couple of Americans just back from Iraq, one of whom had also served as a U.S. Marine officer in Vietnam. Their verdict on what was happening in Iraq now was: Well, were exactly where we were determined not to be. Were in the middle of a civil war.
2005 Universal Press Syndicate