Dickey: The Real Cost of Iraq

It's been three years since President George W. Bush experienced what he called his "accountability moment," i.e., his re-election. And it's a year now since American voters sent a Democratic majority to the House and Senate on the delusional assumption they'd hold this administration responsible for what it's done to the United States and the world. We know how that hasn't happened.

So why would the folks in the Bush White House be the least bit perturbed by publicity about the mind-boggling long-term costs of the war in Iraq that they rushed to wage? I don't think they are, and I wouldn't expect them to be. This is an administration that admits no guilt and knows no shame, and in that it is a perfect reflection of what America and Americans look like to the rest of the world.

As calculated by the Democratic side of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and released Tuesday, the direct costs of the Iraq war from 2003 through 2008 will be $607 billion. If you add indirect costs ranging from interest payments and deferred investments, oil prices and medical care for thousands of veterans who've lost their health, limbs, faces, eyes and, in some cases, their minds, you're talking about roughly $1.3 trillion over the same six-year span.

In an effort to make those figures comprehensible, the committee tells us that for "the $432 million we spend in Iraq every day"—note, that is $432 million a day, per diem, seven days a three-billion-dollar week, or, looking at it another way, $18 million an hour, $300,000 a minute, $5,000 a second, and so on, ad nauseam—we could enroll 58,000 children in Head Start, hire 9,300 more teachers, or provide health insurance for 513,000 low-income kids. But … why would we want to do any of that? Sounds too much like "tax and spend" and "soft on security." Social responsibility doesn't sell at the polls or on the Hill.

OK. For the price of one day in the death of Iraq, according to the committee's calculations, we could hire 10,700 Border Patrol agents or 14,200 police officers in the United States. But would our Congress and our president ever pass such bills? Would the American people vote for such programs? Nah. Hard to imagine. The Bush administration has bet that most Americans feel pretty comfortable, and pretty safe, just the way they are, and so far it's been right.

The Joint Economic Committee and its Democratic chairman, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, tell us that the first half-decade of the Iraq war is costing each American family of four $16,500. If the politicians had really wanted to make an impression, they should have appealed to our selfishness. With that kind of money, Mr. and Ms. Average and their kids could put a flat-screen TV, or two, in every room of the house, or buy that third or fourth car they've been wanting. Maybe that would get a rise out of the American public. Clearly the loss of 4,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq hasn't had that much of an impact.

It's axiomatic that what Americans really want from the rest of the world is to forget about it. And in Iraq, especially, the suffering is too distant, too abstract, too intractable and too guilt inducing to assimilate. And anyway, aren't things getting better? Aren't the numbers of dead down for the last few weeks? Sure. Ethnic cleansing works and death squads work. The Iraqi capital, once unified and cosmopolitan, is now cut up into insular little communities. Since the militias' campaigns of murder, mutilation, intimidation and reprisal have achieved their ends, there's no need to keep the slaughter going. Never mind the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and the destruction of the modern state. Maybe the survivors will be happy if they can get more flat-screen TVs.

If these ironies sound bitter, well, yes, they are. The monetary costs of this war, direct or indirect, budgeted or not, pale by comparison with the human costs and, on a broader scale, the incalculable price Americans already are paying in lost influence, reputation, business and security around the world. Once a nation to be admired for its ideals and feared for its strength, under this administration the United States has been transformed into a country derided for its hypocrisy and feared for its stupidity. Al Qaeda's horrific attacks on New York and Washington may have triggered the blind rage and excused the willful blindness that led us to this pass, but an incurious public, a feckless press and a flaccid opposition have been complicit all the way, and they still are.

The Joint Economic Committee Report issued by the Democrats yesterday is actually a case in point. While extravagant with its negative numbers, it is cautious about blame and useless as a guide to getting out of this mess. It confuses the issue by occasionally adding the costs of the Afghan war to its calculations, then errs on the side of useless equivocation as it looks to the future. The authors base all the analysis in the main body of the report on what they describe as a "considerable drawdown (Korea-like presence)" scenario that would reduce the U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 55,000 five years from now, and keep it at that level until 2017. (That is, another full decade in the mire.) After a few perfunctory and uninformative concluding remarks about a need to "change course," the authors bury an alternative scenario—a sharp American troop reduction to 10,000 troops by 2010 and a full withdrawal soon afterward—in an appendix. Why? Presumably because they know we're not getting out of Iraq under this president or the next one, or two, or three.

Who's going to foot the bill? Eventually, of course, we'll be taxed for the money already spent, struggling to pay off the loans this government has squandered rather than hiring those teachers or those cops we need or paying for that health insurance. Then our children will pay even more, and get even less in return. We'll also live in a world that is less safe, leading lives that are less comfortable, where "sound as a dollar" will sound like a joke, where Americans are less respected, and the force for peace and enlightenment they once represented is long forgotten. I'd like to think that somebody responsible for these decisions will be made to pay. But the accountability moment is passed, and the facts on the ground will endure. I'd like to think that in the dark of night our leaders feel guilty or ashamed. But I don't think they do. Do you?