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Kerry Exaggerates Cost of War in Iraq

He claims Iraq has cost "$200 billion and counting." Not yet, it hasn't.

September 13, 2004

Modified: September 23, 2004

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Summary

 

Kerry is using an exaggerated figure for the cost of the Iraq war in his latest line of attack against Bush, claiming in the latest version of his standard stump speech that the war in Iraq has cost "$200 billion and counting." The Democratic National Committee uses an identical phrase in a TV ad. But that's too high.

There's little question that the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath will cost $200 billion, eventually. But so far, the bill for the war is still under $120 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Kerry runs the figure up to $200 billion by counting money scheduled to be spent next fiscal year, plus additional funds for the future that haven't even been requested yet. He also is counting money projected to be spent for operations in Afghanistan and to protect US cities, not for Iraq.

Analysis

 

The Iraq War has cost more than originally estimated, and there's no end in sight. But Kerry takes liberties with the facts when he claims the cost "is now $200 billion." It isn't. Not yet.

Kerry-Edwards Ad "Wrong Choice"

Announcer: George Bush. $200 billion for Iraq. In America, lost jobs and rising health care costs. George Bush's wrong choices have weakened us here at home.

The Kerry plan. Stop tax incentives for companies that shift jobs overseas. Lower health care premiums by up to $1000 per family. Reduce the deficit to protect Medicare and Social Security.

Stronger at Home. Respected in the World. John Kerry.

John Kerry: I'm John Kerry, and I approve this ad.

Kerry's stump speech uses the $200 billion figure repeatedly -- 14 times in one recent speech  in Cincinnati alone. A sample:

Kerry (Sept. 8): George W. Bush's wrong choices have led America in the wrong direction in Iraq and left America without the resources we need here at home. The cost of the President's go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion and counting. $200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can't afford after-school programs for our children. $200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can't afford health care for our veterans. $200 billion for Iraq , but they tell us we can't afford to keep the 100,000 new police we put on the streets during the 1990s.

The $200 billion figure also is used in a Kerry-Edwards TV ad: "Wrong Choice" (see script at left) released Sept. 7. And it was also used by the Democratic National Committee in an ad called "Iraq" that ran in New York during the Republican National Convention there.

Padding the Numbers

Strictly speaking, the war itself -- just the military operations -- has cost less than half of what Kerry says as of the end of this month (which is also the end of the current fiscal year, FY 2004) according to the Congressional Budget Office. In a report sent to Congress at the request of Democrats, CBO put the total cost of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" at $93.7 billion.

DNC Ad "Iraq"

Announcer: They've pursued a go-it-alone war in Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction. Costing $200 billion and counting. No plan to win the peace. Mission Not Accomplished. The Democratic National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

However, that figure is too low because it doesn't count the cost of reconstructing Iraq, which should be included in any accounting of the total cost of the war. In an estimate released in June the Office of Management and Budget put the total cost of the war -- including  reconstruction and costs of supporting coalition forces -- at $119 billion through the end of this month.

One liberal group, the Center for American Progress, comes up with a higher figure in an August 25 report: "so far, the war has cost the United States $144.4 billion." But that figure is produced by simply padding the OMB's $119 billion figure with $25 billion approved by Congress as an "emergency appropriation" signed into law by Bush on Aug. 5. But there are two problems with doing that. First, the money is for fiscal year 2005, which doesn't begin until Oct. 1, and so it hasn't been spent yet. And second, the $25 billion includes money both for Iraq and Afghanistan , so not all of it can be counted in the eventual cost of the Iraq war.

(NOTE, Sept. 23: According to a Sept. 22 Los Angeles Times report, the Pentagon had already spent more than $2 billion from the $25 billion emergency fund for operations in Iraq. While the fund technically falls under spending for the fiscal year 2005 beginning Oct. 1, the Times reported that Congress made the funds immediately available in August, and the high rate of insurgent attacks caused the military to spend $2 billion of the money earlier than anticipated.)

Nevertheless, Kerry further pads the $144 billion figure by adding another $60 billion that his campaign says the Bush administration is expected to ask for after the election, as a supplemental appropriation. It is true that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that an additional $56 billion will be required next fiscal year. But that's money that won't be spent until next year, and even then it's padded with more than $9 billion that doesn't actually apply to Iraq.

CBO's estimate covers next-year money for Iraq and Afghanistan and what CBO calls the "global war on terrorism," including added costs of keeping combat air patrols over major US cities. It includes $5 billion for "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, $4 billion for "Operation Noble Eagle" (the Pentagon's domestic anti-terrorism operations) and $13 billion in an "undistributed" category that includes such things as mobilized reservists stationed in the United States who are supporting both Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and the cost to
maintain active-duty forces above authorized levels.

There's little question that the Iraq war will eventually cost a total of $200 billion, and possibly even double that figure, depending on how many US troops remain there and for how long. The CBO produced three hypothetical "scenarios" for the future, and their ten-year price tag. A pullout starting next year and leaving no US forces in Iraq by October of 2008 would still add $52 billion to the total cost of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," not counting costs of reconstruction or "undistributed" costs shared among Iraq and other operations. Gradually reducing the current 160,000 US forces to 54,000 and leaving them there indefinitely would cost $233 billion through the year 2014, beyond what's already  been spent.

Kerry would be correct to say the cost of the war in Iraq "is now $120 billion and counting." He would be well within the bounds of argument to say "this war will cost $200 billion," by some unspecified date in the future. But when he says the cost "is" $200 billion, he's straining for effect and going beyond what the facts will bear.

Sources

 

"Estimated Costs of Continuing Operations in Iraq and Other Operations of the Global War on Terrorism," US Congressional Budget Office 25 June 2004.

"The Opportunity Costs of the Iraq War," Center for American Progress," 25 Aug 2004.
"New Kerry Ad: Bush's Wrong Choices have Weakened Us Here at Home" 
news release , Kerry-Edwards Campaign 7 Sep 2004.

"Remarks on Bush’s Wrong Choices in Iraq That Have Left Us Without the Resources We Need at Home,"  Remarks of John Kerry , Cincinnati Ohio 8 Sept 2004.

John Hendren, "The Conflict in Iraq; Cash-Strapped Pentagon Taps Emergency Fund," Los Angeles Times, 22 Sept. 2004.