Bush Won’t Stop the Bucks

Having already sacrificed its international and domestic political effectiveness to prolong the ill-fated war in Iraq, the White House now stands poised to throw more money at the problem. The ethical and strategic costs of the war in Iraq have always been too great to bear, but the ever-increasing financial costs imperil future American economic solvency.

Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported on August 29 that the Bush administration plans to ask Congress in September for an additional $50 billion for the war in Iraq, which comes on top of the $147 billion already requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied the report, but Ricks’s anonymous White House source is not the first person in the know to forecast ballooning war spending in 2008.

Representative John Murtha said publicly in August that he expects the Pentagon to request another $30 to $40 billion for the war in 2008. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told lawmakers July 31 that there would likely be increased costs above the original request of $147 billion in order to sustain President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, which has been allocated $6.5 billion through September 30 but was not funded after that date, according to England.

Asking for additional money for the war in Iraq seems likely at this point, especially because the Pentagon only has $3 billion in “reprogramming authority” in fiscal year 2008 that it can use to transfer money from programs like depot maintenance and soldiers’ payment accounts to the war effort, according to Pentagon Comptroller Tina Jonas. With the U.S. currently spending roughly $10 billion per month in Iraq, $3 billion will only sustain the surge for roughly nine days after the money dries up on September 30.

If Ricks is right and $40 or $50 billion is indeed added to the 2008 request, total U.S. spending requested for Iraq and Afghanistan will equal approximately $800 billion dollars over the past four and a half years. Total Defense Department funding for 2008 will surpass the peak years of the Korean and Vietnam wars in current dollars. This will make the global war on terror the second-costliest conflict in U.S. history in inflation-adjusted terms. Only World War II cost more, a war where 12 million Americans served at a time in the U.S. military, compared with 1.42 million active duty soldiers and just over one million National Guard and reservists today.

This amount of money can be hard to conceptualize, especially when compared in importance to the thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives during the last four and a half years. But consider that in the time it takes you to read this article, the U.S. will spend nearly $1 million dollars in Iraq. Now you understand why the housing market crisis is not the only thing keeping economists up at night. But that’s not all. It gets worse.

With operational costs running so high, one would think the Pentagon has cut back on its procurement of whiz-bang, fight-the-Cold-War-again weaponry, right? Think again.

Even though military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought new focus to the challenges of waging low-tech counterinsurgency warfare, planned high-tech weapons system acquisition spending has increased by 80% in inflation-adjusted terms since the terrorist attacks of September 11. Weapons acquisition increased from 71 major programs with a combined cost of $936 billion in September 2001 to 89 programs with a combined cost of $1.684 trillion by December 2006 (2007 dollars).

Other future war costs are also cropping up on the horizon, one of which is a clear moral imperative: providing the best care, with absolutely no exceptions, to our wounded American veterans. Former Clinton administration budget official Linda Bilmes and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz have predicted that after including the long-term costs of caring for American veterans, total Iraq and Afghanistan spending could soar well above $2 trillion dollars. Be sure to add an asterisk after any war cost estimate for this necessary expense.

And despite the growing number of asterisks to the war costs and claims of fiscal responsibility, the Bush administration has refused to increase taxes or reduce spending in other federal programs to offset higher expenses.

Finally, the administration has also proposed increasing the size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps to 547,000 and 202,000, respectively, by 2012. This proposal enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will cost $162 billion to implement over the 2008 to 2017 period. Better tack that onto the balance sheet as well.

Remember prior to the invasion of Iraq, when Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels predicted that a war against Iraq would cost only $50 to $60 billion? How about in January 2003, when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brushed off war cost estimates of $300 billion as “baloney”?

As bad as things are now in Iraq, the repercussions that follow hemorrhaging hundreds of billions of dollars are just now coming into focus. $50 billion here, $50 billion there — eventually, these costs will truly begin to add up.

The problem in Iraq is political, not military, and as the influential political scientist Kenneth Waltz observed, “To say that militarily strong states are feeble because they cannot easily bring order to minor states is like saying that a pneumatic hammer is weak because it is not suitable for drilling decayed teeth.” Trying to paper over political problems in Iraq by sinking additional American greenbacks into military operations misses the point entirely.

Travis Sharp is the Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.