Invading Iraq: What We Were Told at the Time

The cost of war is not reckoned solely in dollars and cents, but let's look at those financial costs.
Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpgThe costs of the war that began ten years ago tonight are not strictly financial. But for now let's just look at the outlays in dollars and cents. 

What did the Bush-Cheney Administration say about going to war? Here are two reports from the time. First, what happened to someone who dared say the war might be "expensive." From a reconstruction (by me) of the march to war:
By late December [2002] some 200,000 members of the U.S. armed forces were en route to staging areas surrounding Iraq.... Declaring that it was impossible to make predictions about a war that might not occur, the Administration refused to discuss plans for the war's aftermath--or its potential cost. In December the President fired Lawrence Lindsey, his chief economic adviser, after Lindsey offered a guess that the total cost might be $100 billion to $200 billion
Then, official estimates as combat began a few months later:
On March 27 [2003], eight days into combat, members of the House Appropriations Committee asked Paul Wolfowitz for a figure. He told them that whatever it was, Iraq's oil supplies would keep it low. "There's a lot of money to pay for this," he said. "It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." 

On April 23 Andrew Natsios, [director] of USAID, told an incredulous Ted Koppel, on Nightline, that the total cost to America of reconstructing Iraq would be $1.7 billion. Koppel shot back, "I mean, when you talk about one-point-seven, you're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is gonna be done for one-point-seven billion dollars?" 

Natsios was clear: "Well, in terms of the American taxpayers' contribution, I do; this is it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges ... But the American part of this will be one-point-seven billion dollars. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this." 

In the end, what did it really cost? Matthew Duss and Peter Juul of CAP have a summary. Among the elements: the direct cost of the war was about $800 billion, compared with the "shocking" estimate by Lawrence Lindsay of $100 billion to $200 billion. The cost of veterans' care and disabilities would be another $400 billion to $700 billion. And Iraqi reconstruction, which Natsios and Wolfowitz had said would be essentially self-financing? This is how it compared not simply with Natsios's "one-point-seven billion dollars" but also, in inflation-adjusted dollars, with outlays for the Marshall Plan and other recovery efforts after World War II.


Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, Feith, Tenet, Blair, their "conservative hawk" and "liberal hawk" allies in the press, and the rest: these are the costs they incurred. There is no undoing that decision. At least we can recognize what took place.

And of course this cost, as Duss and Juul note:

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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