Thursday, December 15, 2005

U.S. war tab zeroes in on half-trillion dollars


WASHINGTON—Even in a town where 12-figure numbers are routinely tossed around over morning coffee, half a trillion bucks is a hefty chunk of change.

It is half the Canadian Gross Domestic Product, 20 times what a Stephen Harper-led government would be spending on the Canadian military in 2010 and it is what the George W. Bush-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will have cost Americans some time in 2006.

The Pentagon is drafting a wartime request to the U.S. Congress for another $80 billion to $100 billion (U.S.) early next year, members of both parties say, in addition to the $50 billion Congress will hand over in supplemental funding before it leaves on its Christmas break.

That would put the military outlay to $450 billion and counting, pocket change from the half a trillion mark.

The Iraq war alone is costing U.S. taxpayers $5 billion per month and even if today's elections are successful and American troops start returning home in 2006, the money will still be needed to bring back personnel and equipment.

In 1991, Operation Desert Storm cost $91 billion, but because president George H.W. Bush cobbled together a real coalition, the American tab came to $7 billion, said Terry Anderson, a historian at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

"That is the difference between fighting a war as part of a true coalition and fighting a war on your own,'' he said.

Yet the price tag of the war receives a fraction of attention in this country compared to the American death toll, or to faulty pre-war intelligence.

"That's because if you just asked the average American what our annual budget is, they wouldn't be able to hazard a guess,'' Anderson said. "They just don't know, so this means nothing to them.''

But there are other reasons — the average young American does not need to fear the draft, and the average American has not been asked to make any financial sacrifice during the war.

Indeed, Bush has provided tax cuts to the nation's wealthiest.

"Certainly we've never had tax cuts at the time of a war before,'' Anderson said. "So people are thinking the economy must be pretty good because we can afford all these things. But when I tell my students, `Guess who is going to pay for this — you,' they look at me in disbelief.''

Phyllis Bennis, who has studied the cost of war for the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, says there has been a sacrifice by the lowest echelons of American society.

"It's true there hasn't been a call from the president for the American people to share the sacrifice,'' Bennis said. "But it is the poorest sector which is paying because of massive cutbacks in health care, education, every facet of social assistance being slashed to pay for this war.''

She said CEOs of war-related companies have seen their salaries increase 200 per cent since Sept. 11, 2001, while Americans who need food stamps are not getting them.

In 2005 dollars, World War II was more expensive and Vietnam is marginally more expensive, so far.

According to The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War, the Institute for Policy Studies estimates money spent on the Iraq war could have built more than three million housing units, provided scholarships for 80 million American students and provided more than 50 million "head start'' slots for impoverished students.

It says the money could have funded a global anti-poverty program or provided immunizations for the world's children.

Yesterday, 115 religious activists were arrested on Capitol Hill protesting some $50 billion in cuts over five years in a House of Representatives budget plan.

Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian ministry group Sojourners and sometimes a consultant to the Democrats, said political choices were being made that hurt low-income Americans.

Half a trillion is a hard number to wrap one's head around.

By way of comparison, the U.S. education department has an annual budget of $71.5 billion, although education is primarily a state and local responsibility. Homeland Security has a $34.2 billion budget this year, and the defence department expects to maintain its $443 billion annual budget next year. The war costs are about eight times what Congress has earmarked to rebuild the U.S. Gulf Coast after hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

One figure that dwarfs even the war expenditures is the $598.3 billion U.S. trade deficit in the first 10 months of this year.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan would not confirm the new war requests yesterday, but he told reporters the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will be given what is needed to win. Much of the money will have to go to replace equipment which has been badly damaged in Iraq.

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