War Resisters League Releases 2007 Pie Chart for U.S. Budget

At TomDispatch, Mark Engler speculates that the “tipping point” at which the U.S. war in Iraq will unravel has more to do with money than with casualties. Excerpts:

In the center of the CostOfWar.com home page, an upward-racing ticker, presented in a large, red font, keeps a steady tally of the money spent for the U.S. war in Iraq.… As I write, the ticker reads $239,302,273,144.

…Even then, the incomprehensibly large number ticking away on screen turns out to be no measure at all of what we will eventually pay for the war. Depending on what estimate you use, it could be off by almost a factor of ten.…

In the years since Baghdad fell, several analysts have sought better estimates for the war’s true cost. In , Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver at the Institute for Policy Studies issued a paper predicting that the total cost could reach $700 billion at the then-current spending level of $5.6 billion per month. Like the CostOfWar.com tally, this figure included only direct expenditures.

, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes released a report that took a wider view. Hinting at the human cost of the occupation — which, of course, requires its own ghastly page in the ledger of wartime accounting — the report factored in the government-assigned “value of statistical life” for troops killed in combat. (It did not include the loss of Iraqi lives.) It tallied items such as the costs of health care for wounded veterans, increased recruitment spending for a hard-up Pentagon, and the opportunity costs of more productive public investments that might have been made if funds had not been diverted overseas. Following Congressional Budget Office predictions for troop deployment, the report considers the possibilities of full U.S. withdrawal by . All told, the two economists put the cost to the U.S. at between $1 trillion (their most “conservative” estimate) and $2.2 trillion (their “moderate” one).

Sixty billion, 239 billion, 2.2 trillion dollars. The more such figures swirl, the more necessary it is to change the question. The real matter at hand is not, “How much will it cost?” but, “When does it start to matter?”

The answers provided by past experience are imperfect. The Oxford Companion to American Military History places the direct costs of the Vietnam War at $173 billion (equal to $770 billion in 2003 dollars). Veterans benefits and interest payments add another trillion to Vietnam’s costs, calculated in 2003 dollars. Thus, the estimates for the cost of the Iraq war already place the two conflicts at similar levels, although Vietnam expenditures represented a larger percentage of the Gross Domestic Product.

There seems to be no single point at which costs become too great. Different parties reach their moment of decision at different times, independently determining that “victory” is not worth the price being paid. Disaffection builds as financial and human costs rise. And so looking at turning points, in Vietnam or in Iraq, involves twisting the question once again. We must ask not only, “How costly is too costly?” But also, “Too costly for whom?”

…Bad news from the war front helped to turn the public, but domestic dissent went far in shaping public reactions to developments abroad. The same polls that registered the first antiwar majority also showed that most Americans deplored the growing antiwar movement. Nevertheless, antiwar protesters had a critical (and sometimes unexpected) impact. Historian Melvin Small offers one example of when “the antiwar movement dramatically affected policy”: After mass protests at the Pentagon in , “Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was going. When the Communists [then] launched their seemingly successful nationwide Tet Offensive most Americans felt that they had been deceived by their own government.”

A turn in elite opinion followed on the heels of public disaffection. Although rarely remembered, the defection of a previously supportive business community formed an important part of this shift. A lack of business enthusiasm for the war sprang from military developments in Vietnam, but was also spurred by war-related economic doldrums (which have resonance today). As Small explains, “For many economists, the last truly good years for the economy were with almost full employment, very low inflation and a favorable balance of trade.” As the war escalated, “an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade, related in part to spending for the war abroad, contributed to an international monetary crisis involving a threat to U.S. gold reserves in . That threat helped convince some administration officials and Wall Street analysts that the United States could no longer afford the war.”

…In , [Clark] Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Although recruited as a hawk, he formed a new assessment of the war after examining the military realities and polling his well-heeled contacts to gauge the domestic outlook. Historian Gabriel Kolko cites Clifford’s recollections from , when he told several White House aides, “I make it a practice to keep in touch with friends in business and the law across the land… Until a few months ago, they were generally supportive of the war… Now all that has changed. These men now feel we are in a hopeless bog.” He went on to say, “It would be very difficult — I believe it would be impossible — for the President to maintain public support for the war without the support of these men.”

, Clifford helped organize a two-day meeting between President Johnson and his Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam — nicknamed the “Wise Men.” These were veteran operatives and diplomats with powerful connections to the business and financial communities. As David Halberstam relates in The Best and the Brightest, they “quietly let [Johnson] know that the Establishment — yes, Wall Street — had turned on the war — It was hurting the economy, dividing the country, turning the youth against the country’s best traditions.” As libertarian economist Murray Rothbard notes, just a few days later Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection and started the U.S. on its long exit from Vietnam.

…[P]ublic support for the Vietnam War never rebounded after . Yet the conflict dragged on for another . The ticker for that intervention kept racing higher because President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were willing to take the tragedy Johnson made and adopt it as their own. A lesson for us now is that no set pattern will guarantee a satisfying end to the situation we face, a situation in which another unpopular war threatens to stretch on for years.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of the country has already decided that the war in Iraq has become too costly. Americans have rejected the prospect of funding a massive and prolonged occupation. In that sense, we have already tipped.

Questions about the price of war keep resurfacing not because there’s a credible argument for most Americans that the price is reasonable, but because our elected officials thus far have only pushed those costs ever higher. What remains, then, is for the public to hold accountable those who would carry forward the neoconservative crusade — to make their stance a costly one in public life. What remains is for us bring the political price of war into line with the human and financial costs that we will continue to bear.