Gauging the costs of war

With the nation now at war, President George W. Bush plans to unveil this week the details of his war budget. This massive spending plan, about $80 billion, gives a much needed indication of what U.S. military personnel and taxpayers can expect to pay for removing Saddam Hussein, rebuilding Iraq and transforming the fractured country into a functioning democracy.

The request, which comes amid soaring budget deficits and Bush’s push for more tax cuts, reportedly includes about $60 billion for combat and the first months of reconstruction, with the rest going to foreign aid, homeland security and humanitarian relief. Billions will be needed to tighten security in New York and other potential terrorist targets in the United States. Bush will also ask Congress to provide aid to key allies in the region to help them weather the economic shock of the war.

Experts say occupation costs could far exceed the direct military costs of the war, especially if fighting erupts among Iraq’s various ethnic groups. As U.S.-led forces make their way to Baghdad, many “what ifs” remain. But civil unrest after the U.S.-led war is a real danger.

One particular danger area is northern Iraq. Turkey fears Iraqi Kurds in the region might declare their independence, reigniting separatist sentiments among Kurds in Turkey. Iraqi Kurds, on the other hand, fear tens of thousands of Turkish troops could yet move to smother the autonomy they enjoy. Washington should rightly fear this “war within a war” scenario – clashes between various groups that disrupt the U.S. war campaign.

Then there is the matter of rebuilding Iraq, a crucial task to winning the peace. Many estimates about the costs of war and rebuilding abound. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank, puts the five-year cost for military, rebuilding, humanitarian and relief at between $25 billion and $105 billion, depending on the number of U.S. troops on the ground. Reconstructing Iraq will add billions of dollars more, though the United States plans to redirect Iraqi oil revenues to help fund reconstruction. The Pentagon also plans to use the Iraqi regular army to help rebuild a postwar Iraq and is recruiting and hiring Iraqis living in the United States and Europe to play a temporary role in the reconstruction process.

Depending in part on both the prosecution and outcome of the war, for the U.S. to overcome the ill will that Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy has sowed in the international community depends largely on how the administration conducts its affairs from here on out. Already, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov plans to ask the United Nations legal department to declare the war illegal. And French President Jacques Chirac made it clear that he will not accept a U.S.-British postwar administration of Iraq, adding that the United Nations is the only body that can be responsible for rebuilding the country.

Bush remarked earlier this year that “There is no question we will win militarily, but we also want to win the peace.” Nearly a week into this war, U.S.-led forces appear to be on their way to military victory. But the larger question of winning the peace in Iraq remains to be answered. As J. Brian Atwood, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs dean, noted last week, “They can win the war and defeat Saddam (Hussein), but that’s only half the battle.”