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The Long War's Pricetag

"We will stay in the fight until the fight is won," pledged President George W. Bush from the podium at Cleveland's Renaissance Hotel on March 20. "I'm going to say it again: If I didn't believe we could succeed [in Iraq], I wouldn't be there," Bush shrilled at his White House press conference the next day. And then he said it again the next day in West Virginia, "If I didn't think we'd succeed, I'd pull our troops out."

We have heard a lot from President Bush in the last week, as the "educator in chief" (as he called himself in Wheeling, West Virginia) embarked on another desperate round of PR to explain three years of war to the America people. Despite hours of talking -- the text of his three speeches and Q-and-A fills more than 50 pages (10 point, single spaced) -- the president failed to say what Americans want to hear. A March 17 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq is not worth the costs. But the costs continue to mount.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan will increase more than 40 percent between 2005 and 2006. CRS estimates that in 2006 the Pentagon is spending $9.8 billion a month on military operations, compared to $6.8 billion a month last year. Democrats in the House Budget Committee estimate that once the most recent $68 billion in supplemental funding is approved, the United States will have spent more than $445 billion on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

This $68 billion request for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan passed in the House and is likely to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee early next week. Once approved, these funds will mostly cover the predictable expenses of fighting two intractable wars -- things like body armor and other protective gear, tanks and attack helicopters. These expenditures make sense if the United States is fighting what they are now calling "the Long War," but why not add these costs to the Pentagon's $439.3 billion budget request for 2007? Adopting this budget is a process open to full debate, as the House Budget Committee takes it up again today along with the rest of federal spending.

In January, the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said, "This generation of service members will be in what we're calling the Long War… Our estimate is that for at least the next 20 years… our focus will be… the extremist networks that will continue to threaten the United States and its allies."

Why are we paying for the Long War with emergency supplementals that receive almost zero debate in Congress? Because it allows the Pentagon and Bush administration maintain the fiction that the war is happening on the (relative) cheap and foments a false sense of urgency that undercuts Congressional and public debate about the war and its costs.

At his press conference on March 21, President Bush was asked: "Will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?" He responded that while that is "an objective," that decision will be made by "future presidents and future governments of Iraq." For the first time, the American people have a timetable from the White House, albeit a vague and obtuse one; sometime after 2008.

It is time for an honest appraisal of the war and its costs. But it comes from far outside the Beltway. In the "Economic Costs of the War on Iraq," economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes try to gauge of the long term economic consequences of the war. In the January 2006 paper, they assert "even taking a conservative approach and assuming all U.S. troops return by 2010, we believe the true costs exceed a trillion dollars." In his article on the report, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert struggles to explain that number: "imagine a stack of bills worth $1 million that is roughly six inches high… $1 billion [stack] would be as tall as the Washington Monument… If it were worth $1 trillion, the stack would be 95 miles high."

Ninety-five miles of bills. A huge deficit. American and Iraqi lives destroyed each day. From the New York stage of the "Bring 'Em Home Now" concert on March 20, Geoffrey Millard, a soldier who spent 13 months in Iraq, declared "We don't need an exit strategy… 'Exit' is not a strategy; it's an executive order." Those are the words America wants to hear, the sooner the better.

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