Off the Mark on Cost of War

Dana Milbank and Robin Wright offer a critical assessment of the war to date:

A year ago tonight, President Bush took the nation to war in Iraq with a grand vision for change in the Middle East and beyond.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, his administration predicted, would come at little financial cost and would materially improve the lives of Iraqis. Americans would be greeted as liberators, Bush officials predicted, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein would spread peace and democracy throughout the Middle East.

Things have not worked out that way, for the most part. There is evidence that the economic lives of Iraqis are improving, thanks to an infusion of U.S. and foreign capital. But the administration badly underestimated the financial cost of the occupation and seriously overstated the ease of pacifying Iraq and the warmth of the reception Iraqis would give the U.S. invaders. And while peace and democracy may yet spread through the region, some early signs are that the U.S. action has had the opposite effect.


On April 23, 2003, Andrew S. Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, laid out in a televised interview the costs to U.S. taxpayers of rebuilding Iraq. “The American part of this will be $1.7 billion,” he said. “We have no plans for any further-on funding for this.”

That turned out to be off by orders of magnitude. The administration, which asked Congress for another $20 billion for Iraq reconstruction five months after Natsios made his assertion, has said it expects overall Iraqi reconstruction costs to be as much as $75 billion this year alone.

The transcript of that interview has been pulled from the USAID Web site, the agency said, “to reflect current statements and testimony on Iraq reconstruction.” The earlier $1.7 billion figure was “the best estimate available at the time, based on very limited information about the conditions inside of Iraq.”

These are all fair points, although I think some of this is overstated. Clearly, the financial estimates were based on overly rosy scenarios. Frankly, most government startups are. Remember, our involvement in Bosnia was supposed to last only a year, which everyone knew was incredibly unlikely. Presumably, the $1.7 billion estimate was based on the assumption that the Iraqi infrastructure was in much better shape than it turned out to be–a reasonable assumption that would have been nearly impossible to assess ahead of time–and the expectation that most of the reconstruction effort would be paid for by sale of Iraqi oil rather than the American taxpayer. The latter was a policy decision that could and should have been made ahead of time. And, of course, if it turns out that the Administration always expected to pay for the reconstruction out of the Treasury but didn’t let on until it was too late–which would be consistent with the way the Medicare bill was handled–it’s a reasonable thing to factor into the reelection decision.

I disagree with Milbank and Wright on their assessment of the other assumptions. By and large, the toppling of Saddam has been greeted by jubilation. The fact that terrorists have sprung up in greater number than could have been expected and are disrupting the rebuilding effort is tragic, but hardly the logical result of removing a dictator. And, while I’ve continually expressed my skepticism about the spread of democracy in the Islamic world, one year out is way too early to render a judgment. Certainly, we’re about to have something like democracy in Iraq itself. We’ve secured–or at least accelerated–a turnaround in Libya. Pakistan is coming around. There are encouraging signs in Iran.

If Iraq becomes even a moderately democratic state–say, something like India twenty years ago–in the near term and sustains itself after U.S. presence there becomes minimal, then it could indeed become a catalyst for the spread of democracy throughout the region. That’s a very big “if,” without a doubt. But we can’t judge it before the war is even over.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    So, is there anything to the rumor that we’re planning to reopen Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli?

  2. Hal says:

    “The fact that terrorists have sprung up in greater number than could have been expected and are disrupting the rebuilding effort is tragic, but hardly the logical result of removing a dictator.”

    Uh, what about the reasoning behind why we didn’t do this in the first Gulf War? There were numerous editorials and comments regarding the strong possibility of just this kind of outcome.

    Perhaps it isn’t logical from your world view, but to others – some of them in this administration and from other previous republican administrations – it was logical.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I don’t think I ever heard that as a rationale for not going after Saddam–and I was paying rather close attention at the time, being in Iraq at the time. The arguments were that 1) we needed to keep Saddam in power as a counterweight against Iran and 2) we’d fracture the coalition and waste the goodwill we’d created if we exceeded the U.N. mandate of ousting Saddam from Kuwait.

  4. Paul says:

    It amazes me that the bar is set so that if we don’t change the whole middle east in 90 days then the effort was a failure.

    Have these people studied any history at all?

  5. Hal says:

    Paul, what amazes me that your kind set the bar so low such that any and everything is considered victory.

  6. Hal says:

    James: From George H.W. Bush in his book A World Transformed:

    Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in “mission creep” and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, there was no viable “exit strategy” we could see, violating another of our principles. Further more, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different — and perhaps barren — outcome.

    I’ve got a million more. . .

  7. James Joyner says:

    Hal: Nothing in that about terrorists.

  8. Hal says:

    Ah. Sorry. I’ll remember next time to focus on the technical points. It seems to me that the very “Fly Paper” theory that was raised up the flag pole kinda refutes this idea of yours – i.e. one of the purported reasons for the war was to “whack the hornets” nest and drive the terrorists out into the open. While technically not the result of the overthrow of a dictator, it was a predicted effect of the Iraq war – even by its supporters.

    Of course, there’s a string of articles from before the war regarding the creation of new terrorists by invading (FRANCE has warned war with Iraq “would create a large number of little bin Ladens”). But of course, they are just cheese eating surrender monkeys, so I guess they don’t count.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Your comment was about Gulf War I. I said it was incorrect. You produce a quote that says nothing about your point. And then you say it proves we should have known on GW II.

    The Fly Paper idea came to my attention after the war. I don’t think it was a major rationale–if one at all–for the war, other than the broader idea of taking the fight to the terrorists rather than waiting for them to hit us.

  10. James Joyner says:

    As best I can tell, the first articulation of the flypaper theory was by David Warren in July 2003. The meme really kicked off in August or so.