Debating the Costs of War

Pre-emptive war does have its benefits.

For months, the Bush gang has been arguing the United States has to change the regime in Iraq -- that is, invade and bomb to topple Saddam Hussein and his henchmen and henchwomen (if there are any henchwomen) -- because Saddam poses the threat of a threat. Bush has gussied up this posture by rewriting the national security strategy of the United States to include -- front-and-center -- the use of pre-emptive strikes. Rather than wait for a potential threat to become an actual threat, Washington now reserves the right to attack in order to prevent the emergence of a more immediate threat.

To declare -- or boast -- publicly that pre-emption is a fundamental component of a new strategic doctrine reinforces the notion the United States is an arrogant, we-know-best, go-it-alone superpower -- an image that does not deter US foes (see al Qaeda) but does alienate would-be allies.

Still, here is what I like about pre-emptive war: you can talk about it before it happens. That's not always the case with war. Often there is a precipitating event (Pearl Harbor, Sept. 11) or pseudo-event (the phony Tonkin Gulf attacks in Vietnam), a president declares, "This means war," and off we go. With Iraq -- our first pre-emptive war -- there is opportunity to debate and discuss, and to consider costs and consequences.

Consider the financial cost of a military strike. As President John Kennedy and his policy-knights steered the country into the quicksand of Vietnam in the early 1960s, they were not able to provide the citizenry with a projected tab for that mess. With Bush's pre-emptive war against Iraq, that's not a problem. In mid-September, Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's chief economic adviser, told a Wall Street Journal reporter that the United States might have to spend between $100 billion to $200 billion to wage this crusade against Iraq. Noting that the federal debt is already $3.6 trillion, Lindsey said of his estimate, "That's nothing." But his projection was much higher than the $50 billion figure Pentagon officials had been using in private conversations with members of Congress.

Apparently, some folks at the White House believed Lindsey's estimate was more than "nothing," for two days later Mitch Daniels Jr., Bush's budget director, said Lindsey's projection is "very, very high."The Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee then released a report that concluded the initial military operation could cost $48 billion to $93 billion and observed, "Lindsey is in the ball park." The report's figure did not include US peacekeeping or occupation forces that might be required after the war, humanitarian assistance programs, or inducements to attract allies (such as foreign aid grants or loan forgiveness, aka bribes).

The analysts assumed that US force levels would range between 125,000 and 250,000, that the war would last one to two months, and that there would be no Iraqi use of biological or chemical weapons. If any of these variables change for the worse, the report said, the costs could be "significantly higher than estimated."

As these analysts noted, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 cost $80 billion (in current dollars). But allies picked up $62 billion of that bill. Bush is not going to be so lucky with the coming war, which is why the sequel could have a more significant budgetary impact than Daddy's war. (Didn't Bush pere tell fils de famille, "Son, always make sure someone else pays for your oil companies, your sports franchises, and your wars?")

With the United States saddled by deficits, is this conveniently scheduled war the best use of taxpayer dollars? Certainly, if an action is essential for true reasons of national security, a nation must spend what is necessary, even if that means borrowing money or raising taxes to do so. But if there is a chance that a new round of more rigorous and unfettered weapons inspections -- which would include dismantling WMD infrastructure -- can address the threat from Saddam, wouldn't it be cost-effective to try for six months to a year? After all, even Tony Blair's recent "white paper" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction reported Iraq is still years away from developing a nuclear bomb.

There are other financial obligations to consider. Recently, Air Force General Charles Holland, who heads the US Special Operations Command, which oversees the campaign against al Qaeda, told Congress he needs an extra $23 billion over the next five years -- which would nearly double his current budget -- to pursue the perpetrators of 9/11. By the way, in terms of reconstruction and assistance the costly Afghanistan job is not finished either.

With a pre-emptive war, there is the opportunity to ask whether the war represents the best bang for the buck. The federal government is again in the red, with deficits projected for as far as the experts bother to project , thanks in part to the Bush millionaire-friendly tax cuts.

And poverty, after years of decline, is increasing again. According to recently released census data, in 2001, the number of people living in poverty rose by 1.3 million. The government numbers also showed that those already poor became poorer. Given that unemployment in 2002 has been higher than in 2001, it is likely more Americans will join the ranks of the poor this year. Up to $200 billion for a war against an iffy threat when the market is still dropping and joblessness is on the rise? Is that being prudent to a profound (if not foolish) degree? Or the price of diverting attention from other matters?

If this pre-emptive war goes well -- and even skeptics and opponents have to wish for that -- Bush and his allies in Congress will be able to crow. But if it doesn't -- if it leads to chaos in Iraq, dangerous instability in the region, economic trouble at home, more terrorism against the United States, proliferation of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a pre-emptive war elsewhere, or a less safe world -- the President and his supporters will not be able to claim they didn't see that coming. Anyone who rushes to launch a pre-emptive war is asking for whatever unforeseen results ensue.

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