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.