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Views from the Center


Yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor article on the exploding cost of the Iraq war has induced sticker shock even to those who believed that this war of choice was warranted. With U.S. military and reconstruction costs topping $200 billion, early predictions by Paul Wolfowitz, Andrew Natsios and others that the postwar costs would be largely self-financing, given Iraq’s oil revenues [Washington Post], seem laughable. But it turns out that the true costs of the war may be even 10 times greater.

As the Monitor explains,

A new study by Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001, and Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes concludes that the total costs of the Iraq war could top the $2 trillion mark...

That's nearly $7,000 for every American, or - if you wish -- $100,000 per Iraqi. This estimate includes not only the cost of the continued military operations and reconstruction effort, but also the broader costs of the war – an exploding fiscal deficit, the health care costs of the 16,000 plus wounded, and the rising cost of oil.
What is so disheartening about this is that these immense costs were not inevitable but in many ways self-inflicted. Whatever one thinks about the rationale for the war, the failure to plan adequately for its aftermath, based on the lessons of other post-conflict operations over the past decade, was a blunder of catastrophic proportions. The only silver lining is the belated acceptance, by both DoD and the State Department, of the need to create a credible standing capacity for stabilization and reconstruction operations, as we noted in an earlier blog posting.
Beyond this welcome change, the implications of the Iraq war for global development are almost wholly negative. The budget-busting costs are threatening fragile support on Capitol Hill to sustain recent, modest increases in still low levels of official development assistance, in which the United States ranks 19 out of 21 countries. Foreign aid is always a hard sell, since -- unlike the military -- it lacks a natural domestic constituency. Much as the Vietnam War undermined LBJ’s ideas for a Great Society, the Global War on Terrorism, as practiced in Iraq, threatens to undermine the Global War on Poverty. In yesterday’s New York Times (subscription required), Nick Kristoff points out how much good we could do to fight poverty if we put our minds to it. When one considers how much we could do with modest, targeted development interventions, the rising costs of the Iraq war are grounds for despair.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.