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The $3,000,000,000,000 War is a Domestic Issue

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As our seemingly endless primary process reaches the homestretch and the focus shifts to the general election, we need to pull the plug on the media's disturbing habit of acting as if foreign policy and domestic policy are completely separate entities -- a pair of high stakes board games that can only be taken off the shelf and played one at a time. To hear the media tell it, combining the two would make about as much sense as using your Monopoly pieces to play Risk.

But while there is almost nothing about the Iraq war that can be labeled a success, we can declare that it has been exceedingly successful in showing how intertwined foreign and domestic policy actually are. In the book The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, along with co-author Linda Bilmes, argue that, even using "conservative assumptions," the Iraq war will cost at least $3,000,000,000,000, and likely as much as $5,000,000,000,000.

Stiglitz also argues that the war has played a major role in the current subprime credit crisis and our long, hard slog toward recession. Because of the cost of the war, the Fed flooded the system with credit. "The regulators were looking the other way and money was being lent to anybody this side of a life-support system," Stiglitz told The Australian's Peter Wilson.

The book (excerpted here by the Times of London, and here's an interview with the authors at Democracy Now) notes that the cost is 60 times the $50 - 60 billion we were told the war would cost by Don Rumsfeld. The Iraq war is already the second costliest war in American history, trailing only World War II.

Stiglitz makes the case that no country can fight a protracted war without deep and long-lasting effects on domestic policy. Particularly a protracted war paired with tax cuts. Now this doesn't mean a war shouldn't be fought (see World War II), but it does mean that our leaders should be honest about what the real costs will be. And not just in terms of dollars and cents but also in opportunity costs.

The single defining constant of the war over its disastrous, almost-five-years has been the complete and total lack of honesty from those who got us into it and have championed its continued prosecution -- including head war cheerleader John McCain. And although the driver of the 100 Year War Express is fond of offering frequent, empty, and clichéd nods to "sacrifice," he somehow thinks that's all the discussion that's needed about the costs of the war. Note to McCain: your protestations about "out of control" government spending would carry more weight if they weren't accompanied by calls for making permanent the tax cuts you once opposed as "not appropriate" in a time of war.

Maybe Saddam Hussein's head was worth $3,000,000,000,000 -- $5,000,000,000,000, maybe it wasn't (like most of the country, I believe the latter), but if McCain wants us to be there for 100, or 1,000, or a million years, he should be forced to make the case that the benefits outweigh the costs -- foreign and domestic.

As Crooked Timber's Daniel Davies notes, "the cost of the Iraq War could have underwritten Social Security for fifty years."

Or, as Aida Edemariam puts it in the Guardian, it would have paid for "8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students." Of course, as John McCain himself has told us, he "doesn't really understand economics." But foreign policy does not exist in an economics vacuum.

Yet does anybody doubt that the general election is going to feature article after newscast after editorial extolling McCain's "foreign policy expertise?" Even if he's asked about the cost of remaining in Iraq, McCain will likely respond with some version of the Bush spin. "People like Joe Stiglitz," said the White House "lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can't even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11."

Ah, the well-worn 9/11 trump card -- up to now, always an effective debate-ender. Will it still work come this fall? To a large extent that will depend on whether the media are as cowed by it as they have been since the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

If the coverage of the "surge" is any indication, the odds aren't great there will be more truth telling this time. The media seem to have decided that the surge is already a notch on McCain's foreign policy belt. It's a notch the candidate will be able to finger long past November since, the way things have shaken out, the surge has only served to deepen our foothold in Iraq. In fact, many believe that was the point all along.

As Sam Brannen of CSIS notes, "The United States is now the thread that binds Iraq, and it is clear that a serious unraveling of the situation would occur were this thread suddenly to be pulled away." Which led Judah Grunstein to conclude: "In other words, instead of making it easier for us to leave Iraq, the Surge has made it more difficult. And if that doesn't qualify a military tactic as a failure, I don't know what does."

This, in turn, led Andrew Sullivan to say: "I'm not sure that the surge wasn't in retrospect a deliberate attempt to make it all but impossible for the US to leave Iraq any time soon. And less out of a genuine security worry, than in order to save face for Bush and Cheney."

So will John McCain be called to account for the surge, and the rising costs of the continuing occupation the surge has enabled? Not likely. Getting the media to avoid a full accounting of the costs of the war -- both in terms of dollars spent and lives lost or ruined -- was one of the primary goals of the surge. And, in that respect, it has been sadly successful.

The thing about $3,000,000,000,000 is that, at a certain point, it becomes hard to ignore. As the red ink from the approaching recession continues to spill, you can bet the media will be all over the story -- the economy headlined as America's top domestic worry. The question is, will the media connect the dots between the war John McCain loves so much and the economic devastation it's helped cause? The answer could determine who is the next president of the United States.