Five years later, President George Bush and his minions were wrong about the need to fight in Iraq, wrong about the way to fight in Iraq, and wrong about what the war in Iraq would ultimately cost. Original estimates of between $50 to $60 billion were, at best, optimistic guesses.
In a startling and persuasive new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize–winning economist, and Linda J. Bilmes, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, calculate that the war has cost the United States as much as $5 trillion to date. The $3 trillion of their title is, to say the least, a conservative estimate.
There is nothing wild-eyed about the methodology Stiglitz and Bilmes employ. The Three Trillion Dollar War is the work of two very smart and experienced experts who have put their learning at the service of the general-reading public. It is hard to imagine anyone capable of independent thought reading this book and not coming to the conclusion that the war in Iraq is a political, strategic, and financial blunder of staggering proportions.
We caught up with Stiglitz by phone in New Zealand recently. What follows is an edited transcript of our hour-long conversation.
Let’s start at the beginning: why did the Bush Administration go to war in Iraq? And why did Congress and the American people go along with it?
Those are hard questions to answer. The alleged reasons don’t make any sense. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were not, until the United States invaded, any connections with Al Qaeda. Anyone familiar with the highly secular nature of Hussein’s Baathist regime would have known that a connection with Al Qaeda would have been inconsistent with Saddam’s political views. The irony, of course, is that while we were worrying about weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist in Iraq, North Korea became a nuclear power. While we were focusing on a country where there was no connection with 9/11, things went terribly wrong in Afghanistan, a nation strongly connected to the New York and Washington attacks.
What about oil?
The Bush administration never gave that as a reason. Although some people, such as former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, said the connection was obvious. That’s just not plausible . . . well, let me take that back. It is not plausible if you think it through. There probably was a bit of naive geopolitical thinking about oil going on. But we are not living in the 19th century, where one country marches into another and seizes its oil. Oil is an internationally traded commodity. The price of oil is determined by global demand and supply. There is a sort of worst-case scenario where access to any oil at any cost would be vital, but we are not anywhere near that sort of reality. If we went into Iraq to keep the price of oil cheap, then — given current prices — we failed.
Are there any other theories worth considering?
Jacob Weisberg has written a book [The Bush Tragedy] where he suggests there is a link to Bush’s oedipal relations with his father. But that goes beyond economic analysis. And then there is the neocon interpretation that we went to war to force democracy. That, on its own, is a peculiar notion. If you were going to force democracy, why begin there? There are lots of other dictatorships around the world.
By some measures, Bush’s so-called surge appears to be working. Combat deaths are down. The once-hot insurgency appears to have cooled. Senator John McCain, the republican presidential nominee, says this is the road to victory. Cynics, such as myself, see the surge as a way to ensure that the next president will be forced to continue the fight. What’s your view?
I am a bit inclined to your view. The question, I guess, is what lessons can we infer? First, you say the level of violence is down. One has to put this into context. The level of violence is still extraordinary high. And it’s just down from the peaks that it attained at the beginning of 2007. It’s still at the level of 2006. It is not exactly peace and stability.
Secondly, the objective of the surge was to create room to create a viable, stable, political solution to the civil conflict. It hasn’t worked. The political solution has not emerged. So, going forward, you have to ask this: “Are we supposed to maintain our forces there forever? For the 80 to 100 years McCain has talked about?”