War on Iraq

The Price of Imperial Folly

Lost in the Beltway debate over intelligence failure is the enormous price we – Americans, Iraqis, the world – are paying for the Bush administration's self-serving war.
The recently released Senate Intelligence Report demonstrates what so many have known for so long: The claimed justifications for the invasion of Iraq were based on lies. But lost in the Beltway debate over intelligence failure is the enormous price we – Americans, Iraqis, the world – are paying for the Bush administration's self-serving war.

In sheer dollar amounts, the costs of this precipitate war are already far higher than any number put forward by Bush officials at the outset of the war. The price tag so far is $151 billion and climbing – already three times the initial estimate provided by Bush's Office of Management and Budget and embarrassingly close to the "$100 to $200 billion" that White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsay anticipated just before he precipitously left the administration in December 2002.

For most of us, $151 billion is an incomprehensible amount of money. It's hard to imagine what that kind of dollar amount actually means. Well, here are some facts to prod our imagination.

To begin with, $151 billion can pay for health care for 23 million uninsured Americans; or housing stipends for 27 million homeless people in this country; or a year's salary for 3 million new elementary school teachers; or more than 678,000 new fire engines.

The international impact of that kind of money is even more breathtaking. That same $151 billion could feed half the hungry people in the world for two years and provide clean water and sanitation for the entire developing world and fund a comprehensive global AIDS program and pay for childhood immunizations for every child in poor countries that constitute the global South.

The United States instead chose to invade Iraq to depose a tyrant who posed little danger to the United States or to the world.

Startling as $151 billion may be, the costs of the war go far beyond direct economic costs. Local communities across the nation have been affected by the loss of vitally needed federal funds slashed to pay for war. But even more important, they have lost large numbers of 'first responders' – the firefighters, police, ambulance drivers, emergency medical technicians and others who provide crisis care – who are also disproportionately members of the National Guard and the reserves. And with one-third of the entire U.S. military deployment in Iraq made up of Guard and Reserve troops, basic emergency services are facing serious consequences.

Among military families themselves, the impact of this war goes far beyond the fear of death or injury of loved ones. Polls indicate that increasing numbers of military families are facing a serious financial crisis including bankruptcy, unemployment and hunger. The so-called "all-volunteer" army is a creation of the "poverty draft," made up disproportionately of the poor and people of color.

The impact on these families is severe. Between 30 and 40 percent of reservists and national guard members earn a lower salary during military deployment than at their regular job at home. As a result, more military families are forced to turn to emergency food support; one study reported a "several hundred percent" increase in requests for food stamps and subsidized meals by military families between 2002 and 2003.

The future of these families looks just as grim because the U.S. military is overstretched and long tours of duty are likely to remain the norm. While there is talk of reviving the legal draft, even without such a move the pressure on members of the reserve and the National Guard, and on regular troops whose contracts have expired but who are prohibited from leaving the military, will continue to escalate.

The tally of expenses also grows ever longer when we consider the long-term effects of the war. Environmental degradation from the estimated 1000 tons of depleted uranium dropped by U.S. forces, almost three times the amount dropped in the 1991 Gulf War, will certainly have its most damaging effects on Iraqis, especially children, as well as on U.S. and coalition soldiers. The effects are also almost certain to spread beyond the borders to surrounding countries, such as Iran and Kuwait, which share the Shaat al-Arab waterway with Iraq.

The Iraq war's long-term impact on the rule of international law – already made evident by the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib – is likely to be just as destructive. The U.S. decision to go to war without UN approval and in violation of the UN Charter, its assertion of the legitimacy of preventive war (especially one based on false claims), and its law-of-empire style rejection of its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, all set the stage for international lawlessness and escalating conflict. Be it an Indian attack on Pakistan, a war between Peru and Colombia, or a new Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Syria - in each of these scenarios, the offending nation could argue that their actions have been "legalized" by the precedent set by the Bush administration.

The war has also, of course, transformed Iraq into what it never was under Saddam Hussein – a haven and mobilizing point for international terrorism. According to the prestigious International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, the primary effect of the U.S. occupation on Al Qaeda has been "accelerated recruitment."

And in conclusion, let's not forget the most important cost of this war: the loss of human life. U.S. and so-called "coalition" forces have lost over 1,000 soldiers, including 880 U.S. troops. Thousands more have been wounded, many of them grievously so. Iraqi civilians have lost more than ten times that number. While the Pentagon refuses on principle to track Iraqi dead, the most recent estimates range from 11,164 to 13,118.

That the Iraq war has failed to accomplish its stated purposes is undeniable: Iraq is neither sovereign nor free; The Middle East is no more democratic; Americans are not safer, nor is the world. We are already paying far too high a price for this spectacular failure. Our refusal to change course will merely compound this colossally expensive folly of empire.

In the latest opinion polls, 55 percent of Iraqis say they would feel safer if U.S. and other foreign troops left the country immediately. For a change, the U.S. should give the Iraqis what they want.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the lead author of "Paying the Price: The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War," an IPS staff report. The Institute is a think tank that works with social movements to forge viable and sustainable policies to promote democracy, justice, human rights, and diversity. The full text of the report is available online.
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