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Lying about the Ruinous Cost of the War in Iraq

Huck Gutman

While Congress was in session this week debating such momentous issues as whether to prevent the courts from interfering with the Pledge of Allegiance and whether to make it illegal to use women's bodies to raise stem cells (in point of fact, all stem cells are taken from in vitro fertilization), a remarkable report came out in a minor government committee, a report on the cost of the US "global war on terrorism." What is particulary revealing in the report is its provision of very specific numbers for the cost, in dollars, of the Iraq War.

As almost everyone knows, unless they have very faulty memories, the initial estimates of the Bush administration were that the war in Iraq would not cost American taxpayers much

In a fateful September 2002 interview with the Wall Street Journal while the Bush administration was planning the Iraq war, the President's economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey proposed an "upper bound" estimate of $100 billion to $200 billion for its cost. The numbers were too high for the President's liking, so he did what all irresponsible people do: He fired the messenger. Mr. Lindsey was gone.

In damage control mode, Mitch Daniels, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, spun the Lindsay estimate by saying that it was "very, very high." Note that it was not just high, or very high -- but very, very high.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld got into the spin circus, saying, "the Office of Management and Budget, has come up with a number that's something under $50 billion for the cost." If you don't like the numbers, you can not only fire the statistician, you can hire another one to give you the numbers you want to hear. As Mark Twain once said, "Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable."

But facts are facts. The cost is far higher than "under $50 billion," far higher than even the high end of Mr. Lindsay's estimate. As Ms. Belasco has revealed, the cost of the Iraq war through fiscal 2006 is $319 billion.

In addition to this, she notes that both CRS and the General Accounting Office have found that the Defense Department, in reporting on the costs of the war, has omitted substantial amounts of war spending. So the figure is likely to be higher, and it will of course keep growing as the tragic occupation continues.

And will grow still higher as we care for our wounded veterans, and as we re-supply a military which has used up many of its material resources.

Thus, it was not only about weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration misled the country. The enormous fiscal cost of the President's misadventure in Iraq means that there is a lot less federal money to address the crisis in health care, the lack of affordability of college for young people, and the need to find alternatives to fossil fuel.

The Bush administration knew this would happen, of course -- the war in Iraq is, among other things, a way for neoconservatives to insure that the federal government fails in its mission to "promote the general Welfare," a mission mandated by the U.S. Constitution. . We will have a government less able to serve the needs of its people not because we want that kind of government, but because so much of our financial resources will have been poured into the sands of Iraq. Between tax breaks for the wealthy and the costs of the war, President Bush is bankrupting the American treasury.

This, then, is the truth, revealed more clearly than ever before: The Bush administration, which thought up the war and then urged it upon the American people, lied to us, lied about the cost of the war. If Americans knew what the war in Iraq would cost in dead, brave, American soldiers; if Americans knew how many other brave soldiers would return gravely wounded; if Americans knew that making war on Iraq would cut the heart out of HeadStart and Medicaid and would bankrupt state and local governments as revenue sharing declined and unfunded mandates increased -- if, in other words, Americans had known the costs of the war in Iraq, they would not have been eager to support the President.

It has all been a tissue of lies, from weapons of mass destruction to the irresponsible low-ball estimates of the war's costs, to the unfulfilled claims that Iraqi oil would pay for our troops.

Even today the administration refuses to tell the truth. There is still an ongoing deception about cost. Appropriations for the war in Iraq are supplemental rather than regular, which means that our military costs in Iraq are off-budget. Over 90 percent of the costs of the "war on terror" have been provided for in supplemental appropriations bills or as "emergency" funding. The President's apologists will no doubt say that all wars start this way, with supplementals. But wars have never before continued to be funded in this off-budget manner, as Stephen. Daggett of CRS has revealed in a recent report.

In 1951, at the start of the Korean War, supplemental appropriations comprised almost three quarters of all appropriations. By the next year, supplementals were under 3 percent. By the third year of the Korean War, supplementals were down to zero.

In 1966, the first year of the escalation in Vietnam, supplemental appropriations were seven times as high as regular appropriations. The next year, they were roughly equal. In 1968 supplementals were less than a fifth of regular appropriations, and by 1970 they were down to zero.

But the Bush administration will not take responsibility for its actions. Mr. Rumsfeld will never acknowledge that his planning for the war was all wrong, and Mr. Bush will never acknowledge that the costs of the war are real, and not somehow accidental. He seems to believe that if the spending is off-budget, we will somehow never have to pay for the war.

Thus, by looking at numbers, we can see anew the breathtaking ability of the President and his administration to lie about the costs, fiscal and human, of their decision to make war with Iraq. They lied about the numbers before the war, they hide the real costs each day and each month, and they put the whole mess "off-budget" so that -- they hope -- nobody will notice how large is the bill that comes due each year.

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Huck Gutman

Huck Gutman

Huck Gutman, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, was formerly Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He is the co-author of Sanders's political memoir, Outsider in the White House.

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