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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Cost of War

Monday, March 10, 2008

I remember during the run up to war on Iraq watching a Question Time special, in which Tony Blair fielded (or evaded) questions from a live audience. Having by this point moved his justificatory position away from the suspect "45 minute" claim, towards the humanitarian one, I fumed at the television. Admitting that the war would cost around £4 billion (around $8 billion), but proclaiming that it would liberate the 30 million population of Iraq, I wanted to play Blair at his own game of numbers, trading off financial costs with humanitarian benefits.

For my bargaining chips I chose HIV. According to the later UN 2004 report on AIDS, 5 million people are in need of AIDs treatment worldwide, with the annual cost of treatment in the Third World around $300. For $8 billion you could have treated 26 million AIDs victims; that is, for the UK's involvement in Iraq, we could have treated every current sufferer in the world for the next five years. So pretty much the same as the number of Iraqis who would be liberated from authoritarianism, but without the inestimable risk, inestimable moral cost and inestimable future impact of fighting in this field of the War on Terror.

But if I was angered by Blair's refusal to take his moral relativism to the obvious conclusion that the war was relatively (and now objectively) bad value, at least I cannot grumble too much now about his financial estimates: the current cost of the War on Iraq and Afghanistan has been a mere four times the estimates, £8 billion ($16 billion). Compare this to the case in the US, as exemplified on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week of a couple of weeks ago. This includes an interview with Joseph Stiglitz about his controversial new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the War in Iraq. Unwittingly, the discussion is hilarious, because the ultimate stakes are so serious.

At the outset, the US contribution to the War in Iraq was supposed to cost $50-$60 billion (one economist at the time dared to claim it would cost $100-200 billion...but he was fired). The cost today is estimated in Stiglitz's new book to exceed $2 trillion.

Marr then asks, "so that's a mistake of around 20 times as much?" to which Stieglitz replies, "Probably more than that. it's of that order of mistake. It's huge." Marr continues for a moment, before Stieglitz interjects, "No, no, it's actually 200, because remember 60...10 times would be $600 billion, and, er so" - remember, this is a Nobel prize-winning economist - "we're talking about, er...more than that." Masterfully, Marr concludes, "Well I can't even get the order of the mistake right!"

But this is paradoxically hilarious, because of course the stakes, financial (not to mention those less easy to quantify), are so enormous; one simply cannot do other than laugh at the whole, elephantine error of it all. It has its own bleak humour, because one can only imagine that it is the result of a sleepily casual theorising conducted over coffee and croissants in the White House a few weeks before the invasion:
So, Dick [Cheney], how much is this expedition gonna cost?
Well, Mr. President, I'm pleased to say that we have a special offer on all our Middle East invasion range, yours for just - well, sir, for you, just $60 billion. No, $50 billion (what's $1 000 000 000 between friends?)
Oh, mmm [mouth full of buttery pastry] I'll take one of those, and throw in a couple of insurgencies while you're at it.
One could, of course, contest Stiglitz's estimates, which rely on extrapolating the indirect costs such as increased oil prices and future health care. But the government's own facts about the direct costs in the present speak for themselves: they are investing $12 billion per month on the war. Compare that to $5 billion given in aid to Africa each year. That budget represents just ten days fighting in Iraq. Or, to use my original comparison, for one month in Iraq the world's AIDS victims could have been treated for the next decade. Stiglitz's hesitancy was apt: the whole thing does not add up.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:38 pm

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