That number originated two weeks ago from the Joint Economic Committee Democratic majority. Two cost-of-war spending clocks (today they read $442 billion and $472 billion) are much lower because they represent only spending to date, whereas the JEC spending includes in addition ten more years of the war.
Looking back on the history of the cost estimates, they keep rising because:
- The Administration wanted to keep the initial estimates as low as possible to ensure support for an invasion.
- When the first estimates wereprepared, the war was projected to last ten years at most. Now, five years later, the war is still being projected to last 10 more years, i.e., 15 years altogether.
- The JEC number includes a factor for payment of interest on the borrowed money.
- Some estimates include the war in Afghanistan; some don't.
Baseline: $50 billion. The Pentagon originally estimated the cost of a war in Iraq at about $50 billion. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said this was fine as an invasion cost, but added that a U.S. occupation could cost $5-$20 billion more per year.
September 15, 2002: $200 billion. Lawrence B. Lindsey, Assistant to the President on Economic Policy, estimates the cost of a war in Iraq would be $100-$200 billion. During the next two weeks, the Democratic Caucus of the House Budget Committee concurs, with a 10-year end date (2012) and the Congressional Budget Office provides an estimate consistent with the other two
October 29, 2002: $1.6 trillion. Yale University Professor William D. Nordhaus argues existing estimates don't include enough to pay for a long occupation. He estimates the cost of a war in Iraq could be $120-$1,600 billion through 2012. Lindsey leaves the White House. On December 31, 2002, the Budget Director puts the cost of the war at $50-$60 billion. On March 20, 2003, the United States invades Iraq. On April 9, Baghdad is occupied. On May 1, President Bush, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, announces the end of combat operations in Iraq. On June 27, 2003, the various estimates converge slightly. The Department of Defense raises its estimate to $60-$95 billion. In the same month, Professor Nordhaus scales back his upper estimate and raises his lower estimate, for a range of $500-$600 billion over 10 years. On February 27, 2003, George Soros estimates the cost of the war in 2003-2004 at $160 billion. On May 19, 2005, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the war at $600 billion through 2010, i.e., at the upper limit of the revised Nordhaus range.
January 8, 2006: $2+ trillion. The Boston Globe announces a study by Professors Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz showing the Iraq war could cost the economy more than $2 trillion through 2010. The authors’ data are published a month later as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. The Congressional Research Service estimates the Iraq war is costing nearly $2 billion a week and then later at $12 billion per month. In December 2006, Bilmes and Stiglitz, in a Milken Institute article, specify a range of $2-$2.267 trillion as the cost of the Iraq war through 2016. On October 24, 2007, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the war at $1.2-$1.7 trillion through 2017. The report covers both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other activities related to fighting terrorism.
November 13, 2007: $3.5 trillion. The Joint Economic Committee, which in 2007-2009 was chaired by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) as Vice Chair, announce a new estimate of $1.6-$3.5 trillion, i.e., the economic cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far (2002-2008) is $1.6 trillion and projected through 2017 is $3.5 trillion. Minority Republican members of the committee dispute individual numbers but do not provide an alternative estimate.
If you think you can come up with a better estimate, here is an Iraq War cost calculator that allows you to estimate the cost of the war based on your own assumptions about, for example, how long U.S. troops will be required in Iraq.
More tragic than the spending is loss of life in the Iraq war with 3,874 Americans dead so far, and 28,451 U.S. wounded. A new report suggests that the wounded figure leaves out 20,000 unrecorded brain injuries suffered by U.S. soldiers. Monthly losses have, blessedly, been declining recently.
Perhaps the best take on all of this is a November 18 article in the Washington Post that lists some of the things we could have done with the money and of other priorities that might have had a better chance. These costs are much greater than the spending itself. Click here for a continuous update of tradeoffs.