NEARLY FIVE years since the start of the Iraq war, the Bush administration is still funding much of it through emergency appropriations, and only partially through the regular defense budget. This is one of several ways in which the administration has managed to hide the true cost of the war from the American people. Until Congress insists on a full and open accounting, the nation won't know how much of a drag it is on the economy.
Economists once believed that wars stimulated an economy. But when much of the funding goes to Iraqi or Filipino contractors working in Iraq, the benefit to the US economy diminishes, especially in light of what the funding could achieve if used for home-front needs.
In the run-up to the war, President Bush's top economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, said it might cost as much as $200 billion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the actual amount would be just $50 billion to $60 billion, calling Lindsey's projection "baloney," much as Rumsfeld had belittled General Eric Shinseki's estimate that it would take several hundred thousand US troops to fight the war successfully.
Both Lindsey and Rumsfeld were far from the mark. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University's Linda Bilmes have just published "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict," and they consider that figure a conservative estimate.
In their estimate, Stiglitz and Bilmes include the long-term costs for care of the wounded and the financing costs of paying for the war with borrowed money. Calculating the cost for veterans' care was not easy. While the government discloses figures on those wounded by hostile action, Stiglitz and Bilmes had to use Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to learn the total injured in Iraq.
The two authors make much of what the country could be getting if it were not paying for the war. For a fraction of the war's cost, Stiglitz has noted, Congress could put the Social Security system "on solid financial footing." The entire federal budget for autism research, about $108 million, is spent every four hours in Iraq. With just $1 trillion, the country could provide 43 million students with scholarships for four years at public universities.
Wasted dollars are just one of the costs of the war, and not the most important. Nearly 4,000 US troops and at least tens of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives. The conflict has left Iraq divided along its religious and ethnic fault lines, strengthened the theocracy in Iran, and made Uncle Sam a pariah in much of the Islamic world. This toll in human life and geopolitical consequences is all too obvious. Congress should make sure the country understands the economic cost of the war, too.