As a presidential candidate, John McCain stands out not only for his vocal endorsement of the unpopular war in Iraq but also because one of his own sons is a Marine Corps officer on active duty there. He supports the war even at the price of his own career or the life of a child he loves.
Yet although the senator from Arizona is obviously no chicken hawk, he carefully avoids "straight talk" about the real costs of this war in dollars and debt. Like every other politician who agrees with the Bush policy of prolonged war and occupation, he still pretends that we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on this endless misadventure without collecting enough tax revenue to pay the actual costs.
Hundreds of billions? Sorry, but that vague estimate is probably far too modest, according to a new book by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes. In The Trillion-Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, they warn that the war's "true budgetary cost," excluding interest, "is likely to reach $2.7 trillion." Aside from the price of munitions, contractors, transport, fuel, and other fixed costs, their calculations are based on the government's continuing obligation to provide medical care and disability payments for the thousands of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the coming decades.
Those costs represent a moral debt on which we cannot default — and they will grow larger every day that we maintain the occupation. Even if the war could be ended immediately, the fiscal obligations incurred by the invasion and occupation will continue. Beyond the mandatory disability payments, medical and psychiatric care, and additional benefits to which our vets are entitled, the nation will face years of increasing military budgets to restore the equipment and readiness of our battered armed forces, especially the Army and the National Guard.
Even in the "best case" scenario envisioned by Stiglitz and Bilmes, with our troop presence declining rapidly, the U.S. commitment in Iraq is still likely to cost no less than $400 billion over the next several years, on top of the $800 billion or so that we have spent to date. Those figures, which don't include veterans' benefits, add up to $1.2 trillion. What the authors call their "realistic-moderate scenario" for a prolonged presence in Iraq will cost twice as much or more.
Having served at the highest levels of the federal government, both authors understand that the Bush administration's war budgeting has been a travesty — aided and abetted by lawmakers such as McCain, who have gone along all the way. Instead of accounting honestly for the war's costs and requesting the necessary funds to pay for them, the White House has routinely used "emergency" supplemental requests as a device to hide the truth. The emergency process prevents the Office of Management and Budget as well as congressional staff from thoroughly reviewing the data. Inevitably, they explain, this lack of transparency and competence has resulted in waste, fraud, and corruption in payments to contractors, most of them politically wired, while essential equipment and veteran care remain underfunded.
Compounding the disgrace is the fact that the Bush administration and Congress financed these "emergency" budgets by borrowing, rather than raising taxes, as the United States has traditionally done in times of war. The Bush administration has insisted on reducing taxes, with most benefits accruing to the wealthiest individuals, while piling on debt for succeeding administrations and generations (and leaving the nation's infrastructure to rot away, too). The politicians who have cooperated in this outrage, such as McCain, should tell us why they still call themselves "conservative."
Back in 2001, when he was still in his maverick phase, the Arizona senator voted against the Bush tax cuts. Today he says that he objected to the budgetary flimflam that cut taxes without reducing program costs, but at the time he claimed to worry about the excessive premiums for the very rich. Now he runs around promising "no new taxes" just like every standard right-wing Republican.
In an unguarded moment, McCain once confessed that he doesn't know much about economics. Even he should be able to comprehend the disastrous fiscal effects of the Iraq war, which its proponents originally promised would cost us almost nothing. Perhaps he should ask an economist to calculate the real cost of occupying Iraq for a hundred years, as he imagines — and how many generations will pay dearly for this mistake.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer and Salon.