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Analysis: Estimating The Cost To The U.S. Of A War In Iraq

All Things Considered: February 26, 2003

Cost of War

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The White House today refused to confirm reports that the cost of a potential war with Iraq could be double previous estimates. The current budget does not include funding for a war, even though millions have already been spent simply deploying US forces in the Persian Gulf. So the Bush administration is preparing a supplemental budget request, and analysts say it seems certain to be higher than previous estimates. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

The Bush administration has been decidedly vague about how much a war with Iraq might cost. When pressed, officials have said less than $50 billion. Last year, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey caused a stir when he put the price tag at between 100 and 200 billion at best. The administration dismissed the figure, and Lindsey was soon fired. Today, reporters badgered White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, asking what was the harm in citing even a ballpark range.

SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING

Unidentified Reporter: The recently departed Larry Lindsey put forward an estimate back in December based on a percentage of GDP, which was in line with the spending on...

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (White House Spokesman): Are you asking me to follow the example and be recently departed?

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Unidentified Reporter: Well, that's the--that's the...

Mr. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Defense analyst Gordon Adams of George Washington University says when it comes to drawing up administration budgets, all numbers are political.

Mr. GORDON ADAMS (George Washington University): I don't think the administration was anxious to have a large number out floating in the public debate six months ago. To be fair to them, I don't think anybody had done any serious estimating, either. So Larry Lindsey's figure was back of his particular envelope.

LUDDEN: But now Adams says it looks like that guesstimate is turning out to be pretty close to reality. Unnamed administration officials have been quoted as saying they may ask for as much as $95 billion. A Pentagon official says that figure likely would include much more than just the cost of military action in Iraq. But defense analysts say many other war-related bills will probably come due later. Steven Koziak is with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He notes just yesterday the Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, told Congress the US made need to keep several hundred thousand US troops in Iraq well after any war to maintain security.

Mr. STEVEN KOZIAK (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): I mean, if you are somewhere going to have several hundred thousand troops and that they're going to be primarily US troops, that could add significantly to the cost, because if the US was just going to maintain a peacekeeping force of 200,000 troops there for a year, that could be $50 billion right there.

LUDDEN: White House spokesman Fleischer insists there is no way to accurately predict the cost of any war since much of it depends on Saddam Hussein. Analyst Koziak agrees, giving a list of unknowns: Will there be resistance? How long will fighting last? Will Iraq set fire to its oil wells? Whatever the scenario, defense analyst Gordon Adams and others say the reports of higher figures don't really come as a surprise given what the Persian Gulf War cost back in 1990 and '91. But Adams says there's a key difference between then and now.

Mr. ADAMS: In Gulf War I, we paid $60 billion to fight the war. Our allies gave us back all but about $10 billion of that money. So it was--you know, Gulf War I was subsidized. Gulf War II will not be subsidized.

LUDDEN: Whatever the bills are, Adams says, this time around the US will be virtually alone in paying them. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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