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U.S.: Forecasts For Cost Of Iraq War Way Off The Mark

  • Andrew Tully

So far, the cost of the U.S.-led war on Iraq has vastly outpaced the most common estimates that were being circulated in Washington shortly before the fighting began. RFE/RL explores why these forecasts were off the mark and whether the United States can expect help from other countries to defray the costs.

Washington, 16 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Seven months ago, in February, not long before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there were varying estimates of how much such a war might cost the U.S. The most frequently cited figure at that time was about $60 billion.

About a month into the war, in April, the U.S. Congress appropriated $79 billion for the conflict. Now, President George W. Bush has asked for an additional $87 billion to cover foreseeable costs for both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even subtracting perhaps $10 billion for Afghanistan, the cost of the war in Iraq has far exceeded all but the most pessimistic prewar forecasts. Americans are now reported to be resisting the idea of paying so much to rebuild Iraq at a time when Bush has just cut taxes and the country faces a budget deficit of about $500 billion.

For example, a recent poll conducted by "The Washington Post" and television's ABC News says 61 percent of respondents in the U.S. oppose Bush's new $87 billion request. Asked how the government should finance the payments if Congress approves the president's proposal, four out of 10 people polled said they would give up the tax cuts.

In February, some observers were saying that $60 billion did not seem to be an excessive amount to pay for a war that was widely expected to be a military success. Today, however, that dollar figure has tripled, at least in part because the war has not gone as well as expected.

Henry Aaron is a senior economist at the Brookings Institution, a private policy-research center in Washington. He told RFE/RL that the Bush administration -- justifiably or not -- did not foresee the conditions in Iraq as they are now. "What's happened is obvious: We've run into more problems than we anticipated," he said. "Probably, we should have anticipated more than we did, and prepared for them, but we failed to do so and are now confronted with them."

Allan Lichtman agrees. Lichtman, a professor of history and politics at American University in Washington, said it is doubtful whether anyone could have made an accurate forecast of the war's cost, given the many unknowns in any pending conflict.

But Lichtman notes that the Bush administration must have had a more concrete idea of how much it would likely be spending in Iraq. He told RFE/RL that he believes Bush did not want to risk a lessening in domestic support for the impending war by speaking of its true expected cost. "I think the [Bush] administration was not entirely candid with us throughout this process," he said. "I don't think they wanted, early on, to signal the enormous long-term costs of this war because they were afraid it might, at a crucial period in the war, undermine public support."

Rather, Lichtman said, Bush wanted to save the bad news for sometime after Saddam Hussein was deposed as Iraq's president -- "in the glow of victory," as Lichtman put it. But he notes that there is no victory yet, with U.S. occupation forces the constant targets of insurgents, many of whom are believed to be holdouts from Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Seventy-three U.S. soldiers and 11 British troops have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since 1 May, the end of major combat operations.

There is still the possibility that other countries, particularly under a possible United Nations mandate, might share the cost of pacifying, policing, and rebuilding Iraq. But neither Aaron nor Lichtman believes the United States can expect much, if any, help from abroad.

Aaron said he does not believe the Bush administration ever had any realistic expectation of getting help from the international community, since it decided to go to war in Iraq without the support of the United Nations.

And lately, Aaron added, Washington has insisted on maintaining control over the occupation and reconstruction efforts, making it unlikely that any country would want to invest its own resources in Iraq without having influence over how such resources were used. "I don't know that we were expecting much help, and certainly we've done little to encourage it," he said.

Lichtman agrees. He said Bush and his senior advisers appear satisfied to have the United States and Britain bear the brunt of the cost, as long as they do not have to cede control of the operations. "I don't think we were ever counting on much European help here. I think the Bush administration was always prepared to essentially go it alone. Except for significant help from Great Britain, this is an American operation. And I believe this administration was always prepared to bear the burdens of what was necessary, in their view, in Iraq," he said.

Amid all this talk of billions of dollars is word from some of Bush's top advisers that even more money may be needed for Iraq before long. On 14 September, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were asked on separate television news programs (CBS's "Face the Nation" and NBC's "Meet the Press," respectively) if the administration expects to seek more appropriations for Iraq from Congress in the foreseeable future.

Rumsfeld said no one can answer that question until the White House's Office of Management and Budget completes its negotiations with congressional leaders. Cheney, too, said it is too early to say whether more money might be requested.

But Cheney, who is widely viewed as Bush's most intimate adviser, added that he sees no reason to expect that the United States will ultimately have to pay the entire cost of rebuilding Iraq. He cited a donors' conference scheduled for Madrid next month, where nations are expected to announce how much they intend to contribute to the work in Iraq.

Cheney also said Iraq can itself make a significant contribution to its own reconstruction. "Iraq sits on top of 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, very significant reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia," he said. "The fact is there are significant resources here to work with, and the notion that we're going to bear the burden all by ourselves, from a financial standpoint, I don't think is valid."

But Lichtman notes that other countries -- notably European countries -- already have given generously to rebuild Afghanistan and the Balkans and may have little left to give for Iraq.

As for Iraq's oil, Lichtman said it will help, but not until the United States can rebuild the infrastructure and get it pumping fast enough to generate significant revenue. Until then, he says, U.S. taxpayers should not count on Iraq's oil to ease their financial burden.

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