The U.S. war in Iraq has now lasted more than five years. Thousands of American soldiers and Iraqis have been killed or wounded in the conflict. In addition to the tragic human toll, the war has also run up a large price tag for the United States. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas tells us, determining the exact cost in dollars and cents is both elusive and politically sensitive.
The controversy over the war in Iraq has taken on a fresh dimension, as economists and politicians voice growing concern about just how much it is costing taxpayers in real dollars and cents. But economists say pinning down exact figures is a difficult exercise, and there is sharp disagreement over the real costs.
Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, says the war cost is already past one trillion dollars - that's "trillion" with a "t" - and will eventually climb to $3 trillion or more.
"This is our estimate, conservative estimate, of what the total cost of the war will be,” Stiglitz said. "That includes what we've already spent, and what we will spend, for instance, for the disability care and health benefits of our returning veterans. Forty percent of them will be coming back with disabilities, and many of them will need a lifetime of care."
Other estimates, such as those from the Congressional Budget Office, are lower. But all estimates agree the cost will be at least $1 trillion - a staggering figure, and one that is very difficult to grasp.
To put it in rough perspective, if we were to go back one trillion seconds in time, that would be a prehistoric 31,688 years ago.
This is a far cry from what the Bush Administration was saying before the 2003 invasion. Appearing on ABC television's This Week, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed any contrary cost estimates. "The Office of Management and Budget estimated it would be something under $50 billion," stated Rumsfeld. Asked about outside estimates of up to $300 billion, he responded, "Ugh. Baloney."
Why were the original estimates so far off the mark? Stiglitz and other analysts say the main reason is that the Bush Administration never expected the war to drag on as long as it has. "I think that as they envisaged the war, they had this what you might call a fantasy that the major problem would be sweeping up the garlands, rose petals from the garlands, that would be thrown around the necks of our liberating soldiers," said Stiglitz.
The White House does not dispute the new Stiglitz estimates, although a spokeswoman says, depending on circumstances, it is hard to anticipate future costs of the war.
The different estimates now being floated underscore the continuing debate over future costs as the war continues.
Peter Orszag is director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which prepares budgetary estimates for Congress. He says Stiglitz's estimates are high because they factor in more than just direct costs to the federal budget.
"There's a different concept. They're trying to measure a much broader concept of costs,” Orszag said. “And I should say, I'm a friend and indeed co-author of Joe Stiglitz's, but I have to say on this, there's a lot of controversy surrounding some of those other measures."
In particular, Orszag says, Stiglitz overstates the costs of additional health care for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Steve Kosiak, an analyst for the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, says interest payments on the extra debt incurred by the war also contribute to the higher estimates.
"We basically have responded to this war by putting it on our national credit card; by taking out loans, borrowing, to pay for the operation. That is unlike past military operations where we often raised taxes, at least somewhat, and cut back other programs to pay for the operation. And those interest costs can be substantial. It's hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decade," Kosiak added.
Military families have already paid a high price in the lost or shattered lives of sons and daughters, but analysts say the weight of the economic burden of the Iraq war will in all likelihood be passed on to a new generation.