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Cost-Benefit Analysis 

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  • Larry Beinhart

The war in Iraq has cost about $434,000,000,000 (four hundred and thirty-four billion dollars) to date.

That’s pretty hard to grasp—especially on my income and probably on yours. Let’s bring that home and make it a little more understandable.

Albany County’s share of this is $597 million.

The cost to the residents of Ulster County is $354 million. The folks of Saratoga County are kicking in $469 million. Berkshire County, $201 million; Rensselaer, $309 million. So far. It keeps ticking away at $2 billion a week. (These figures, and an explanation of how they were allocated, can be found at

What did we get for our money?

The original deal—as presented to us—was to disarm Saddam Hussein for $50 billion. If we didn’t do it right away, the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud.

Bizarre, but true, that was actually accomplished. And for far less. It wasn’t difficult, since Saddam was already disarmed. But by massing our troops and demanding UN resolutions, Saddam was forced to let the inspectors in so that we got to see it for ourselves.

But the administration was set on war! We’re not actually sure why. Perhaps they aren’t either. So they told us that the inspectors were associated with the UN, Switzerland, France, or some other foreigners, and therefore easily conned. Not like Americans. Not finding the weapons really meant that Saddam was super-tricky as well as super-evil. So the goal slipped from disarming Saddam to removing him.

Removing Saddam was going to be a magic moment. It was going to be like a Disney animated feature. When the ogre was slain, the entire kingdom would break out with flowers and the flowers would dance and sing. And welcome the Americans as liberators!

We were going to get so much more on our investment!

Strike a blow in the war on terror! Keep (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of a dictator who might give them to terrorists. Establish a democracy in the Middle East. Bring stability to the region and hope to other people under evil dictators. Make Israel safer.

Most of all it would be a demonstration. We would smite our foe like the Lord God Almighty, throwing thunderbolts and parting the very seas, so that all who saw would quake in fear and tremble before us. That’s the colorful, theological version, but it is, in fact, what the administration expected.

We were a beneficent power, too. We were going to rebuild Iraq. George Bush said it was going to be “the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan!”

Were we committing to more money down the road? No. “We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon,” said the ever-astute Paul Wolfowitz, deeply knowledgeable about third world countries, war, and finance. “What a deal,” as they used to say, throwing in a second pair of pants and a genuine silk tie, when you bought your bar mitzvah suit down on Orchard Street.

But it wasn’t a Disney movie. The commander-in-chief and his crew were wrong in their assumptions and incompetent in execution.

If they stop, they have to admit that. It’s not their money. Or their bodies. So while it may not be in our interests, it’s in their interest to turn the war into the Energizer Bunny, endlessly, mindlessly, going and going and going.

One question that should be asked, is: Where did the money actually go?

The answer is that nobody really knows.

To give you some idea of how bad the bookkeeping is, the Congressional Budget Office reported that from 2001 to 2006 we had spent $290 billion on the war in Iraq. But the Congressional Records Office had the number at $318.5 billion. A gap of $28.5 billion.

The Government Accounting Office said that because of the way the Department of Defense handles its money, “neither DOD nor the Congress reliably know how much the war is costing and how appropriated funds are being used.”

We don’t even know how many troops are deployed to Iraq. One Defense Department system says 260,000, another says 207,000, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which does their payrolls, says 202,000. A difference of as many as 58,000 troops.

The Armed Forces have been so privatized that General Petraeus is not guarded by soldiers, but by private contractors.

When we pass a bill for billions to “support the troops,” we have no way of knowing how many troops we’re supporting or how much money is supporting them. It would be at least as accurate to say it’s a bill to support Halliburton, Blackwater, and the general’s private security guards.

George Bush’s version of the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction, is even worse. Paul Bremer III burned through an estimated $40 billion. Billions were handed out in cash. People were playing football with shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. Nobody knows where the money went. Nor is there much to show for it.

Alright, there was waste, corruption, and profiteering on a grand scale. What did we get for our money?

We didn’t get rid of the WMDs, because they weren’t there. We got rid of Saddam Hussein. He was replaced by a nominal democracy, and an actual chaos. Murder, rape, gang violence, civil war, revenge killings, semitribal war have become the norm. Al-Qaeda not only survived, it got stronger. The Middle East is less stable. Israel looks more vulnerable. Iran has been strengthened.

Instead of being a demonstration of irresistible power, the war has exposed the limits of American power.

George Bush said this was a war for civilization. In the course of it, we have rejected the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Principles, and the rule of law. We have embraced torture, failed to protect and provide for civilians in a country under our occupation, and allowed the monuments and treasures of an ancient civilization to be looted and destroyed. Who is it that’s fighting for civilization?

Has anyone benefited from this war? Yes.

Before the war Halliburton was facing bankruptcy. Now they’re doing very well, along with a host of other military contractors.

The big winners are Iran and al-Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden was a murderous madman, an outlaw hiding in the caves of Tora Bora. Now al-Qaeda has a new base in Iraq and controls at least one province. His goal was to get America into a war like the one the Soviets fought, and lost, in Afghanistan. Which he did. He also wanted an actual worldwide conflict between Islam and the West. He got that too.

Iran wanted Saddam Hussein gone. To have Shia groups, with ties to themselves, come to power afterward. Iran wanted for America to be weakened and to have its forces tied down so they could pursue their nuclear ambitions. They got all that.

As I wrote this, I heard a story on the radio about a kid from Saugerties who got both legs blown off in Iraq. I didn’t catch his name. I’m sorry. He’s one of the 25,830 that the DOD reported as officially wounded. Along with 3,500 US dead. The 650,000 Iraqi dead. No one counts their wounded. Millions driven into exile.

Those are some of the costs. Now you know who benefited.

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