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McFeatters: American people deserve honest estimates of what war will cost

A picture taken on September 3, 2007 shows

A picture taken on September 3, 2007 shows US "surge" troops from 1-30 Infantry Battalion crouching after hearing gunshots during a foot patrol along the Tigris river south of Baghdad. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Iraq war was going to pay for itself from Iraqi oil revenues, according to senior Bush administration officials in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. When it became clear that was unlikely, the Bush administration, instead of raising taxes, as we had done in every previous war, cut them instead.

The upshot is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost U.S. taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, both in immediate costs like replacing equipment and rebuilding stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, and long-term legacy costs like caring for wounded and disabled veterans.

These estimates are the work of Linda J. Bilmes, a respected Harvard public-policy professor and an expert in calculating the cost of our military ventures. She figures the U.S. already has spent nearly $2 trillion on the military campaigns in those two countries.

"As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives," she wrote in a new report.

The Bush administration methodically cowed critics of its lowball estimates. According to The Washington Post, Stephen Friedman left his post as a senior White House official in 2002 after angering the president's inner circle by estimating the Iraq war could end up costing $200 billion.

Gen. Eric Shinseki was allowed to retire as Army chief of staff, rather than being reappointed, for telling Congress in early 2003 that the Iraq war and its aftermath would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," far more than the administration was letting on.

The number of troops in Iraq peaked at just over 150,000. Adding in the troops in Afghanistan and those stationed at sea and in support roles in neighboring nations brought the total to roughly 294,000 by December 2008, the Congressional Research Service reported the following July.

For the moment, Congress is preoccupied with the federal deficit and the national debt, to which these wars contributed greatly. But there are lawmakers and interest groups pushing the U.S. to intervene in Syria, attack and destroy Iran's nuclear program, root out the resurgent Islamic terrorist groups in North Africa and brace for a military provocation by North Korea.

Some of these military ventures may be necessary, even unavoidable, but the American people are owed an honest assessment of the probable costs and how much their taxes will have to go up to pay for them.

Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.


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