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The Middle East @ Work

The cost of the Iraq war

Scott Jagow Mar 3, 2008


SCOTT JAGOW: We move on now to how much the Iraq war is costing us. In 2003, the U.S. government predicted $60 billion. But the authors of a new book say it’s now $3 trillion. I asked Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes about their calculation.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: When they talked about 50, $60 billion at the beginning of the war, they didn’t talk about what the cost of healthcare for the returning veterans, alone, will be.

JAGOW: So we’re talking about costs that we didn’t really anticipate or put into the equation, but we’ve been in wars before. Linda, why wouldn’t we factor those in?

LINDA BILMES: Well, I think there are a few reasons. In this war there have been an unusually high number of very serious injuries that troops have survived, which is a very welcomed development and a tribute to battlefield medicine, but at the same time, it means that the United States will carry, for many, many decades, the cost of taking care of disabled veterans from these wars.

JAGOW: Alright, so we have this huge tab for this war that’s gone on for five years now, where is all this money coming from?

STIGLITZ: Well, we borrowed the money. We cut taxes as we went to war, and that meant that we’re already deficits, but the war has been totally financed, in a sense, by borrowing.

BILMES: I also want to point out that the $3 trillion, that is not including interest payments on the debt. If you add in the interest, it reaches even higher.

JAGOW: Since we are in this bind, how do you two, after going through all this research, propose that we get ourselves out of it?

BILMES: Well, we have called for a system of clear financial accounting. Secondly, we have called for an end of the current practice, which has been to fund the war through these so-called “emergency supplemental funding packages,” which don’t go through the regular budget process because they’re supposed to be for emergencies, like Hurricane Katrina, and inevitably you have corruption and profiteering and the Halliburton type problems that result when nobody of either party gets to really look at the money that’s being spent.

JAGOW: Let’s say that your number is pretty accurate, the $3 trillion number, and let’s say, in a perfect world, that somehow there was stability that was brought about in the Middle East because of this war. After doing all this research and writing this book, would you be OK with spending $3 trillion for that?

STIGLITZ: Three trillion dollars is a lot of money. Let me be clear about that, and with $3 trillion you could have done a lot better, I think, in winning the hearts and minds of people not only in the Middle East, but all over the world, and therefore you would have provided a more solid foundation for peace and security in the Middle East.

JAGOW: And Linda?

BILMES: I would simply say that people deserve the chance to understand what this war is really costing, and then decide whether they think it’s worth it or not.

JAGOW: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, authors of “The $3 Trillion War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict,” thanks for joining us.

BILMES: Thank you.

STIGLITZ: Thank you.

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