Tell the World the True Cost of War

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Tell the World the True Cost of War  (2003) 
by Robert Byrd
Delivered on February 26, 2003.

Since last August, the Administration has worked aggressively to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who directly threatens the United States. The President has been unambiguous, and often dangerously blunt, about his passion to use force to destroy Saddam's regime.

The Bush Administration has promoted a vision of Saddam's removal from power quickly, easily, and bloodlessly. Indeed, part of the rationale for support for this war is that America's tremendous military superiority over Iraq will confine a military conflict to a relatively painless contest between the United States' awesome military forces and the relatively weak, conventional military machine of Saddam Hussein.

A swift and simple military victory certainly is one possibility, but in our democratic-Republic the Administration also has a responsibility to inform the American people that much less pleasant scenarios are also possible and even likely. The Congress has a responsibility to explore all possible scenarios with an eye to the eventual costs of this war. We must not just accept the rosy projections so far offered by the Administration. Frankly, I have seen little effort by either the Administration or the Congress to inform the taxpayer about the likely costs of this war.

In both dollars and human lives, the Administration has been ominously quiet about its internal calculations and estimates. What is even worse is that the Congress has barely bothered to ask about them.

Earlier this month, the President unveiled his budget for the Fiscal Year 2004. Even assuming the most primitive and loose definition of the term "fiscal responsibility," that budget request should certainly have included some rough cost estimate for a war with Iraq. Even a range of costs would have been somewhat illuminating.

But no cost estimate was included in the President's budget. Let me repeat that. There is no estimate of the cost of the looming war with Iraq in the President's budget. The possible war has dominated the airwaves for months, yet there is no cost estimate in the President's budget. President Bush mentions the looming conflict in nearly every public pronouncement, yet no cost estimate to fight this war appears in his '04 budget. Is the Administration trying to tell the people of this nation it is for free?

When the Defense Secretary presented the President's defense budget to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and was asked what the Administration projected that a war in Iraq would cost, he would only say that such costs are "not knowable." Let us contemplate that answer "not knowable." Does the Secretary of Defense mean to say that this great nation does not yet know what its plans include for a war with Iraq? Is that why the costs are "not knowable?" Does he mean to say that we do not yet know exactly what we are going to try to achieve in Iraq? Is that why the costs are "not knowable?" Or does he simply mean to indicate that he does not want to divulge the potential costs, therefore to us they are "not knowable."

One must presume that by now the Administration would have made several internal forecasts of the military cost of the war using various scenarios, and that the White House Council of Economic Advisors would have prepared for the President a classified study of the projected economic impact of the war. Reportedly OMB Director Daniels has been working on war estimates for months, yet we are told that these costs are "not knowable." None of this information has been made available to the public, nor, I suspect, is it likely to be released in the near future. Congress has a responsibility to demand that information. Congress must not accept the answer, "not knowable." The American people deserve to know the truth.

There was one cost estimate provided by the Administration which came from an interview last fall with Larry Lindsey, the President's former economic advisor, who said that a war with Iraq could cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. He went on to opine that that was "nothing."

Yet, the White House quickly distanced itself from that comment, and the director of the Office of Management and Budget rebuked that estimate, saying that Lindsey's estimate was "very, very high."

The OMB Director suggested that the cost of the war would be closer to $60 billion or $70 billion. The Pentagon recently stretched that estimate to $95 billion. I wonder just what we are to make of these conflicting estimates. How are we to gauge the validity of such widely varying numbers. Do these figures contemplate other complications?

What if casualty estimates grow into the thousands? What if oil prices skyrocket, sparking inflation and lines at the gas pump, and costing the U.S. economy thousands of American jobs? Suppose the Middle East erupts in a tornado of violence, toppling regime after regime in the region?

Even a rudimentary list of the possible contingencies shows that costs may grossly exceed what the Administration wants the public to believe.

The Congressional Budget Office reported last September that the incremental costs of just deploying a force to the Persian Gulf — that is, those costs incurred above those budgeted for routine operations — could be between $9 billion and $13 billion. Prosecuting a war, according to the CBO, could cost between $6 billion and $9 billion per month. And after hostilities ended, the costs just to return U.S. forces to their home bases could range between $5 billion and $7 billion.

Regardless of the swiftness of a military victory, there remains the cost of a post-war occupation of Iraq, which the Administration says could last for up to two years and could mean another $1 billion to $4 billion or more per month during that period. On top of that, the United States might face a humanitarian crisis including rampant disease and starvation if Saddam Hussein employs a scorched earth strategy in defending his regime. What about the need for a cleanup of biological and chemical weapons if the Iraqi Republican Guard employs them against U.S. soldiers?

Reconstruction and nation-building costs resulting from installing a democratic government in Iraq have to also be thought about. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences projected that the minimum reconstruction and nation-building costs for Iraq could be as high as $30 billion, and that's under the very best of circumstances. Will the Administration propose something similar to a Marshall Plan for Iraq? The Academy reported that U.S. investments in Western Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan cost a total of $13.3 billion over a four-year period. That is the equivalent of $450 billion over four years if measured as a percentage of GDP in 2002.

No one likes to talk about putting a price tag on national security, but these costs simply cannot be ignored in light of our current sagging economy and given a projected budget deficit of $307 billion for the fiscal year 2004. Remember, this government is going to have to borrow the money to finance this war. The total price of a war in Iraq could easily add up to hundreds of billions of dollars - - even a trillion or more - - overwhelming a federal budget which is already sliding into deep deficits and warping the U.S. economy and impacting the economies of other nations for years to come.

And unlike the Gulf War in 1991, many of our allies are unlikely to want to help much in defraying these costs. Right now, the Administration is trying to coax nations to join the "coalition of the willing" by paying them, not by asking them to help us pay for the war. "Coalition of the willing" or "COW" for short. It appears to me that the U.S. is the "cow" - - the cash cow in this case. We are the ones being milked.

The Administration reportedly has negotiated a multi-billion package of grants and loans for the Republic of Turkey for use of its bases to open a possible northern front against Iraq. The Administration is negotiating similar multi-billion packages with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other allies in the Middle East. I wonder if members are aware of the details of any of these deals in the works or their projected costs over time?

I believe that the costs of this war will be staggering. We know that our nation's most precious treasure, the lives of our young men and women in uniform, will certainly be threatened. But we do not know how great the risk is because the Administration will not talk about its plans. In addition, the cost, in terms of taxpayer dollars, will be enormous. We hear of negotiations ongoing with Turkey that are in the area of $30 billion. We learn of requests from Israel for $12 billion. In addition, Jordan wants to be compensated. We read that negotiations are underway to provide economic assistance to Mexico, Chile, and various African nations — all of which are members of the United Nations Security Council.

Where will this all end? How many nations will be promised American economic assistance just for their tacit support? And how strong is support that can be bought with promises of American dollars?

This is no way to operate. If the case against Saddam Hussein were strong enough on its merits, the United States would not have to buy the support of the international community. If the world truly believes that Saddam Hussein poses an imminent threat, then let the world say so clearly. But do not taint that decision, do not taint the possible sacrifice of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen, by prying open the door to war with a blank check from the taxpayers.

If war is undertaken without UN sanction or broad international support, the United States taxpayer can expect to pay the costs of the war for decades and pay the interest costs for decades more.

And that's to say nothing about the larger macroeconomic costs to the economy. The economic ripples of a war could spread beyond direct budgetary costs into international energy markets through higher oil prices. The psychological effects of a war in Iraq, especially if it initiates new terrorist attacks around the globe, could further scare the already jittery financial markets and rattle consumers.

If the war goes badly, either through heavier than expected causalities, protracted bloody urban warfare, massive foreign denunciations, chemical and biological warfare, or major terrorist attacks here and abroad, we may be plunging our economy into unfathomable debt which this nation cannot easily sustain.

But even if one discounts these scenarios as unlikely, and sets them all aside, the potential costs of a limited war in Iraq could continue to pile up for years, depending on the total damage to Iraq, the civilian casualties, and the possibility that the war's effects could spread into other countries.

This is a dangerous and damaging game the Administration is playing with the American public. Glossing over the cost of a war with Iraq may make it easier to win short-term support. But without any serious attention to costs, the American people cannot be engaged in a fulsome public discussion about the eventual wisdom of undertaking this war. Public support cannot be sustained to accomplish our post-war goals in Iraq if the nation has been misled about the duration and difficulty of such a conflict. We cannot treat the citizens of this nation as if they are children who must be fed a fairy tale about fighting a glorious war of "liberation" which will be cheap, short and bloodless. If the President is going to force this nation to engage in this unwise, potentially disastrous, and alarmingly expensive commitment, he must lay out all of the costs and risks to the nation.

What is particularly worrisome is how naively the idea of establishing a perfect democracy in Iraq is being tossed around by this Administration. If the Administration engages in such a massive undertaking without the American people understanding the real costs and long-term commitment that will be required to achieve this bucolic vision, our efforts in Iraq could end with chaos in the region. Chaos, poverty, hopelessness, hatred - - that's exactly the kind of environment that becomes a fertile breeding ground for terrorists.

The Administration is asking the American public and the international community to support this war. The Administration must also put all of its cards on the table. A list of real risks and downsides do the nation no good locked in Donald Rumsfeld's desk drawer. They must be brought into the sunshine for the people to assess.

The American people are willing to embrace a cause when they judge it to be noble and both its risks and its benefits are explained honestly to them. But if information is withheld, long-term political support can never be sustained. Once the order is given and the bombs start falling, the lives of American troops and innocent civilians on the ground hang in the balance. Once "boots are on the ground," concerns about the monetary cost of war necessarily take a back seat. This nation will not shortchange the safety of our fighting men and women once they are in harms way.

But our people and this Congress should not have to wait until our troops are sent to fight to know what we are facing, including the painful costs of this war in dollars, political turmoil, and blood.

In a democratic-Republic, secrecy has no place. Hiding information from the public to rally support behind a war, at the very time when the government should be striving for maximum trust will eventually undermine our nation's strength. This conflict will be paid for with the people's treasure and the people's blood. This is no time to affront that sacrifice with beltway spin and secrecy.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).