The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported today that “total spending for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and other activities related to the war on terrorism would amount to between $1.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion for fiscal years 2001 through 2017.” With $705 billion in interest, the cost of the wars could amount to $2.4 trillion — with $1.9 trillion in Iraq.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino attacked the report as “a ton of speculation” and downplayed it as a creation “based on questions that Democrats in Congress that don’t want us to be in the war asked.” Perino added that the White House is not concerned about the exact cost of the war:
[I]t’s just a ton of speculation. It’s a hypothetical … What I can tell you is I’m not worried about the number. What I’m worried about is making sure that the president gets what he needs in order to provide the safety and security for the country.
The CBO’s projection is not “pure speculation.” In fact, the report considers a range of predictions about the U.S. military presence in Iraq, consistent with the administration’s desire for Korea-like, “enduring” occupation of Iraq. For example, in one scenario, the CBO predicts 30,000 troops deployed for the “war on terrorism” until FY2017. In another, they predict a more “gradual” decline to 75,000 by the start of fiscal year 2013 until 2017.
While the White House may not be “worried about the number,” the cost is certain to be harmful to the economy. “[I]t’s clear under analysis that the nation is on an unstable fiscal path,” CBO Director Peter Orszag told Congress today. The “higher debt and interest costs, is going to cause severe economic dislocation, which are exacerbated by war costs.”
USA Today notes, “In the months before the March 2003 Iraq invasion, the Bush administration estimated the Iraq war would cost no more than $50 billion.”
UPDATE: Tim Grieve adds: “CBO officials were asked this afternoon whether the $2.4 trillion figure represents their ‘worst-case’ scenario. No, they said: It represents only the worst of two different scenarios the CBO priced out. The real costs could actually be higher.”
PERINO: Well, part of it is that when you start having all — it’s just a ton of speculation. It’s a hypothetical that was created based on questions that Democrats in Congress that don’t want us to be in the war asked the Congressional Budget Office to provide.
Our force structure in Iraq and Afghanistan has fluctuated. Already this year, the president said that 5,700 troops will come home by December. We don’t know what the costs are going to be over the years and so because that fluctuates, it’s just wildly premature to put out a number like that.
QUESTION: So what might be a more reasonable estimate? I mean, I’m sure folks at OMB have their own counter.
PERINO: Well, look, spending to fight the global war on terror is an investment in our security and it is something that the president is committed to prioritizing in the budget. We hope that Congress would agree.
We don’t know how much the war is going to cost in the future. We do our best to try to provide those projections as we did last February when we sent up the budget and we said we think this is how much we are going to need, $146 billion, $149 billion. We added $46 billion to that in the supplemental that we asked for last week.
You can’t project that far into the future. We are starting to see good signs of success — I’m sorry — signs of progress in Iraq. We want those trend lines to continue. We want our troops to have the force protection they need, the equipment that they need, and the care for our wounded warriors and their families need to factored into this, as well.
But $2.4 trillion is pure speculation.
QUESTION: And if you can say it’s inaccurate and others can say it’s wildly inaccurate, surely there must be some kind of quantifiable sense as to what this is going to…
PERINO: I think that they looked at 10 years in advance. We just don’t operate that way in terms of providing a federal budget. We provide as much information as we can, but there are changing conditions on the ground and it’s just — it would not serve the public well to put out numbers that we don’t have any confidence in.
QUESTION: If that number turned out to be somewhat close to accurate, do you think that would be a reasonable amount of money to be spending on the military?
PERINO: You’re asking me another hypothetical question, if that were to be true. I’m not going to answer that.
QUESTION: Doesn’t that strike you as…
PERINO: What I can tell you is I’m not worried about the number. What I’m worried about is making sure that the president gets what he needs in order to provide the safety and security for the country.