War's costs will be felt for years
George Watson, Staff Writer
The cost of five years of the war in Iraq can be seen in almost any community in the United States.
Families whose loved ones were killed or wounded struggle to put their lives back together. The economy teeters, thanks partly to what a renowned economist projects will ultimately be a $3trillion war bill. Gas prices soar. A political landscape that cost many Republicans their seats in Congress continues to fuel anti-American sentiment outside the nation's borders.
Despite substantial political and infrastructure improvements directly attributable to U.S. involvement in Iraq, few observers believe that as of today - the fifth anniversary of U.S. bombs first falling on Baghdad - an end to America's presence there is in sight.
The consequences of a continued stay, they say, will be felt in Americans' bank accounts and in politicians' ability to govern.
"Iraq doesn't leave a huge amount of maneuvering room," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "If you stay in, that involves an enormous amount of direct expense, and that limits your fiscal options elsewhere. Even if the next president decides to get out, that won't be right away. And you would still have to have a presence in the Middle East either way.
"This is not going to have a happy ending."
No matter one's opinion on the merits of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the human costs are clear cut.
More than 3,990 U.S. military personnel have been killed. At least 60,000 have been wounded, and many continue to receive medical treatment through an already underfunded Department of Veterans Affairs.
The number of Iraqi civilian casualties is the subject of some debate. Some put the total as low as 75,000, while others claim the figure is in the hundreds of thousands.
Estimates of the financial cost of the war to the U.S. vary. The Congressional Research Service puts the Iraq tab at $526billion; the National Priorities Project says it's $502billion. The Department of Defense's total is far lower than either: $400billion as of the end of December.
And then there is the figure offered by Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University, a former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for economics. Stiglitz recently published a book that conservatively projects the war's eventual cost to the United States at $3trillion.
The conflict has further damaged an already weakened economy, argues the author of "The Three Trillion Dollar War - The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict." The billions of dollars being spent every day to fund the war could be used to help solve domestic problems, he says.
"What we are talking about is so huge that it would make major dents in things that we can't do but want to do," Stiglitz said in a phone interview from New Zealand. "No matter what you say, our standards of living are going to be lower as a result of the war."
Stiglitz's findings factor in the nation's long-term interest on the war debt, as well as rising battle costs. His other concerns:
As much as $600billion will be needed to care for wounded or injured military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Injuries from the 1991 Gulf War - which lasted a month - cost the nation $4.3billion a year in disability compensation.
A $5-to-$10 per-barrel increase in the cost of oil, amounting to as much as $800billion in extra expense for Americans, further weakening the economy.
An overused, overburdened military whose depleted supplies must be replenished to ensure the nation remains able to wage wars on multiple fronts, if necessary.
"What this all means is we are less secure than we were five years ago," Stiglitz said.
Stiglitz's assertions carry a lot of weight among economists and political scientists.
"His figures are really worth considering and probably should be taken as definitive," said Bob Jackson, the Fletcher Jones professor of government and director of international relations at the University of Redlands.
Jackson - a Canadian who recently testified before his native country's Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs - is particularly concerned about the cost of the Iraq war as it pertains to Afghanistan.
Canada, Jackson explained, is seriously considering pulling out of Afghanistan.
"After 9/11, you had the world admiring the United States like they haven't since the end of World War II," Jackson said. "But the quick moving of troops and personnel to Iraq has led to the fact that we're almost losing Afghanistan."
He said such an outcome would squander the success that came after the 2001-02 war there, which removed the Taliban from power and established Hamid Karzai as the country's elected ruler.
"We can't have Afghanistan go under," Jackson said. "It's squeezed between nuclear powers. If it goes under again, it will become a training ground for terrorists, and we will have failed in the whole task there. The purpose was to get the Taliban out and remove the chance of it being a terrorist haven, which we will now be creating."
From the perspective of Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles chapter, the war's cost has been multifaceted.
Ayloush is an American with school-age children, and he worries about the state of their education, given California's budget crisis, cuts to education funding and teacher layoffs.
He, too, worries about the economy, the cost of gasoline, and the future of health care.
The war has other, less tangible costs, he noted.
"The biggest nonfinancial, nonmaterial casualty is the damage to our credibility and moral standing in the world today," Ayloush said. "When we issue reports on human rights, which the State Department does, people laugh at it now. They say, `Be quiet."'
Ayloush, who visited Syria and Jordan recently, said he was struck by how angry people are at the United States. The war in Iraq has displaced 2.4million people and induced another 2million to live abroad, primarily in the two countries he visited. Before the war, 500,000 Iraqis lived outside the nation's borders.
"We have caused misery to thousands of their lives and we haven't accepted responsibility," Ayloush said. "We expect neighboring countries to carry that burden without any financial help."