by Karen Kwiatkowski
It will cost more to leave Iraq than to continue to occupy it, according to the latest GAO report.
The headline from the bankrupt Washington Post yesterday read, "GAO Calls Iraq Pullout A 'Massive,' Costly Effort." Many of us, weary from years of watching the American way of war and those of us personally impacted by the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, recall that the asinine Post and moronic New York Times reliably echoed the White House. An invasion of Iraq would cost us little to nothing. One vaguely remembers the term "cakewalk" and recalls the flowers and candy to be thrown at our liberating troops. In April 2003, Treasury Secretary Snow informed us that "America can afford the cost of this war, which at $74.7 billion makes up less than 1 percent of GDP."
Newsflash! $75 billion represents nearly 2.5% of the US GDP today. And the Iraq war has cost us directly over $600 billion, and even if we stop now, its total cost will amount to nearly $3 trillion. War on the cheap it wasn’t.
Before the invasion, two administration officials cautiously tried to tell a slightly truer story about the Iraq invasion costs. Overnight, economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill were sent packing. The truth that was so dangerous? The war would cost at least $200 billion, and the invasion was on the Washington agenda for years and never had a real policy debate.
When Army Chief Eric Shinseki suggested to Congress that it would take several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq, he too was unceremoniously marginalized. Same for Bush’s Middle East Envoy, Anthony Zinni.
What was the mainstream media response to these tentative truth-telling transients? CNN reported that the departures of Lindsey and O’Neill were "predicted," in O’Neill’s case because "He is generally seen as not being able to get along with Republicans in Congress, as well as not having the support of Wall Street." Hmmm. The Washington Post and New York Times strenuously reported the administration’s anger and outrage about O’Neill and Lindsey. In the case of Shinseki, a quiet man who did not seek the media limelight, seven years later CNN accused him of being too passive in making his case in 2002. Zinni was dropped from the media radar.
The new GAO report contains some excellent observations and advice for the Congress six years into the occupation. One wonders what the GAO said about the costs of the Iraq war when it started. Looking at all GAO reports on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 (there are 182), only two occurred prior to the March 2003 invasion. These were the largely irrelevant Weapons of Mass Destruction: U.N. Confronts Significant Challenges in Implementing Sanctions against Iraq in May 2002, and Gulf War Illnesses: Similarities and Differences Among Countries in Chemical and Biological Threat Assessment and Veterans' Health Status in January 2002. On May 15, 2003, the GAO published a report focused on Rebuilding Iraq. It was little noted, a correct response by the way, as rebuilding Iraq and Iraqi society, for Iraqis, was never really what we had in mind.
What should we take away from this latest bit of after-the-fact analysis from the GAO and the media’s sudden hovering concern about the Iraq war’s cost to taxpayers?
First, war is a racket. Not much has changed since Smedley Butler made his name in valiantly intervening on behalf of Washington, and then more valiantly denouncing the game as it is indeed played.
Second, the mainstream media functions to cheer politics, to cheer war, and to advertise the benefits of war. This arm-of-government lackey-ism desensitizes citizens to the costs of war, while increasing their sensitivity to being called traitor, disloyal, unpatriotic or doing anything that could get them mentioned in the MIAC Report.
Third, invasion of small, poorly defended, unpopular but resource-rich countries is good business for the well-connected. This mirrors war as a racket – but it’s more personal than that. AIG, even with its recent $170 billion infusion of tax dollars has nothing on the tax-eating complicity of the major defense contractors in Iraq. Phil Giraldi reports in the current issue of The American Conservative that on top of everything else, American military officers and other American officials in Iraq have created their own little bailout, skimming from the till to the tune of $125 billion.
Lastly, it will NOT cost more to leave Iraq than to stay. It’s all in the attitude. Ship the people home, auction off the facilities, have a big bonfire. It could even be fun. Abandoning the Iraqi outpost, destroying the military bases we constructed and outfitted (as we must do), concluding this chapter of the Iraq tragedy and fully accounting for the terrible waste of lives and money that it was – all this has a price. Feelings will be hurt, defensive memoirs written, taxpayers and soldiers will wonder whither the sacrifice, and Americans will increasingly feel that they cannot trust their government to make policy, go to war, or manage taxpayer resources.
This loss of faith, the evaporation of contracts (until the next gyration of the corporate state is sold to us on the cheap), the contraction of American credibility, and the incredible silent emptiness that settles when people realize that the lessons learned will never compensate for the losses sustained – well, all that is expensive.
Like the famous movie about a bridge built by prisoners, war apologists have created a fantasy of what Iraq means. Our generals, many of our soldiers, tour after tour, are invested in Iraq. What meaning will there be if all that America has created in Iraq is abandoned? As those Mesopotamian monuments to Pentagon power fall to dust, and the stories of America’s expenditures and actions in Iraq are airbrushed out of our textbooks, what will be left?
At the end of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Colonel Nicholson somehow realizes that the work he had done – for its functionality, its perceived integrity, for the glory of British tradition – was in opposition to the real national security needs of his country. He destroys his beloved creation – and in doing so we understand that doing the right thing destroys more than just buildings and bases. It can and will destroy many cherished fantasies about who we are, and what we are about.
Screaming defenders of the Iraq project – in Congress, the media, in uniform and throughout the military-industrial complex and in the White House and in Tel Aviv – all should be disabused of their fantasies. Many Obama supporters felt that the administration would move quickly in this regard – by charging, trying and sentencing the war profiteers and the war liars.
The latest GAO report on withdrawing from Iraq makes one thing clear. We can’t simply shoot the policymakers, and throw their heaving carcasses on the detonators. Not yet, anyway.
March 27, 2009
LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D., a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power.
Copyright © 2009 Karen Kwiatkowski