Let My People Go: The Cost of the Iraq War

July 7th, 2006

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Well another Fourth of July has passed—barbeque, fireworks and lots of hoopla for the Good Ole U.S. of A. Hard to believe we are a nation at war, but it’s true. For about 130,000 American troops, the 4th of July was just another grim day in Iraq.

It was grim in terms of lives lost and bodies maimed, the futures that were ruined or permanently knocked off course. In fact, it’s really hard to see past that human cost, especially when you talk to someone face to face who is paying it.

But there is another cost, and it’s one that every American is paying, whether we know it or not. So consider that the Fourth of July in Iraq, as with every day in Iraq, was not only grim, but expensive. Really, really expensive.

I’m thinking about those costs after reading Matt Yglesias’s brilliant Iraq article in The American Prospect The Price is Wrong, where he brings common sense to all the arithmetic of this war.
Highly credible estimates predict the true cost of the war will be more than one trillion dollars. That’s a million dollars a day, every day, for a million days—or every day since Moses left Egypt, as Yglesias points out.

Ygelsias goes on to tell us all of the security we could have paid for with that money, and it breaks your heart. We could have bought a 21st century “transformed” military, safety from nuclear weapons, security in Afghanistan, homeland defense, real progress in the fight against terrorism—the list goes on, and we could have had it all, not just some of it.

But what really breaks your heart is what we have instead. None of those other high priority areas has seen enough progress—the military is in dire need of rest and refurbishment when it should be in the middle of transformation. Iran and North Korea have gained ground in their quest to become nuclear weapons states, and Russia’s massive Cold War stocks of deadly weapons remain largely unsecured. Afghanistan is backsliding into war. Our homeland defense is not much stronger than it was on 9/11. And we have done nothing to address the problem of how to cut off terrorism at its source – how to shut down that seductive ideology of hatred, which draws in the angry, the criminal, and the disenfranchised around the world.

Not only that, but we don’t have much to show for our money in Iraq. There is less oil, clean water, and economic activity than there was before we invaded. There’s a precarious political balance and a steady tide of tribal, clan, sectarian, and score-settling killings across the country. We have Iran interfering in the south and the Turks fingering their worry beads as they watch what appears to be the formation of an independent Kurdish state in the north. The Syrians and Saudis just keep shipping their most problematic citizens across the border to destabilize someone else’s country. What will happen to the people of Iraq, to the political balance of the region when we leave? No one really knows.

And what will this mean for American leadership in the 21st Century? We’ve squandered American lives and treasure and inflamed the region, producing a generation of Iraqis angry at Americans. They’re in good company, according to the latest Pew polls—the Bush Administration has made our nation unpopular the world over.

But Bush and his cronies do not want you to think about any of this. They do not want to fix what’s wrong. They do not want to bring together the regional players in the Middle East in a peace conference. They do not want to work with the Turks to keep their worst fears at bay. They do not want to talk to the Iranians. They do not want to tell Americans and the world that they have some vision for success and a strategy for achieving it. They just want to win elections. They just want to stay in power.

It’s time to stop squandering our precious resources. It’s time to put American power to use in the service of a constructive vision. It’s time to let Iraqis know we don’t intend to stay forever, by committing to bringing our troops home. It’s time to let our troops know what they are fighting for and what victory will look like. It’s time to make sure vital national interests will be protected in the Middle East when we leave. And it’s time to hold people who have made mistakes accountable – not just the soldier who commits atrocities, but the leaders who have failed our soldiers.

It’s time to invoke the fighting spirit of 1776—and the founders’ belief in the rule of law. Let’s really give the nation something to celebrate by the time the fireworks go up again on Independence Day.