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The elusive price tag of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan

Marketplace Staff Sep 1, 2010

The elusive price tag of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan

Marketplace Staff Sep 1, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: In Baghdad this morning, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates took up where the president left off in his speech last night. The new era in Iraq has officially started. Operation New Dawn began with a ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces. Seven and a half years, and by most estimates, something between $1 trillion and $3 trillion later, the news of the day provides an opportunity to take stock. To try to figure out what the United States got for its money.

Andrew Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. Welcome to the program.

Andrew Bacevich: Thanks for having me on the program.

Ryssdal: Is there a way for us to figure out how much this war in Iraq and also in Afghanistan has cost us?

Bacevich: No, I think we’ll never know. And we’ll never know, because the people in Washington don’t want us to know. If indeed, we could tally up the actual dollar costs, I think they would end up being os large that there would be a great hew-and-cry from the people. That will be one of those numbers that I think will tend to be very elusive.

Ryssdal: We can’t figure out then in pure, bottom-line return on investment, right? I mean, we had a set of goals, but we don’t know how much we spent, and so we’re at sea a little bit.

Bacevich: Well, it’s worse than that, because the goals, of course, shifted over time. I mean, in the immediate wake of the fall of Baghdad, we were told that the goals included the transformation of Iraq into a liberal democracy, in which the rights of Iraqi women would be protected in perpetuity. More than seven years later, we’re certainly settling for quite a bit less. So the longer the war lasted, the more it cost, and in a sense, the lower the objectives came to be. The unwillingness to demand anything like strict accountability has become a deeply ingrained habit in Washington D.C., and it’s a habit that neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to challenge.

Ryssdal: What about the people of the United States though? Because we are finely attuned, domestically, to how much money we have spent on the TARP, on how much money we’ve spent on the bail out. And yet it does not translate, it seems, that curiosity, into foreign politics.

Bacevich: It doesn’t, because in terms of the average American, the number is a theoretical one that doesn’t have any direct personal, immediate impact. If indeed we’ve spent roughly a trillion dollars on the Iraq War alone, that hasn’t resulted in me or you paying higher taxes. So this enormous expenditure of money hasn’t affected you and me directly. It will end up affecting your children, my grandchildren. I expect that future generations will probably curse us for our unwillingness to pay for wars that were undertaken in our name.

Ryssdal: We’ve been talking about the Iraq War. The general press buzz the past couple of days has been combat operations are over, and now what we have is this advise-and-assist mission over there. But that does not close the financial books. I mean, we’re still spending huge amounts of money over there.

Bacevich: Oh absolutely. I mean, the fact of the matter is we have combat brigades still in Iraq, we’ve just attached a different label to those combat brigades, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to keep them out of further combat. But we’ll continue to spend billions in Iraq. And as others have pointed out, we’ll continue to spend hundreds of billions in residual costs, if you will, from the Iraq War, to recapitalize the Army and the Marine Corp, in particular, to pay the costs of veterans’ benefits. So, if we would say at this point, that the Iraq War has cost us roughly a trillion dollars, we’re best off saying, “That’s a trillion dollars and counting.”

Ryssdal: Andrew Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is called “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” Dr. Bacevich, thanks so much for your time.

Bacevich: Thank you.

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