03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time to Be Honest about the Cost of the War in Iraq

Just how much will the Iraq war cost the American taxpayer next year? We don't know, and the people running the war (who should know) say they don't either. In his $3 trillion federal budget, President Bush is asking for $70 billion for the war, but he admits that won't be enough to cover an entire year of operations. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reluctantly admitted to Congress that the government might need another $100 billion for Iraq in a year when the U.S. already faces a projected $400 billion deficit. So once again, the President will submit a "supplemental" spending bill later in the year. They get to do that in Washington - just slip the bill under the door later. Makes you think of contractors who low-ball their bid for renovating your house and then come up with a whopping figure for electrical work after they've knocked down your walls and ripped a massive hole in your ceiling.

People familiar with President Bush's pattern of funding the war may have to restrain themselves from crying "there he goes again." The administration has routinely relied on "supplementals" to pay for the war. In theory at least, supplemental spending requests are supposed to be for unexpected expenses, but as late as 2006 -- when spending for the war could hardly be considered "unexpected" -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was telling Congress that supplemental spending requests allowed his department to be more accurate and provided "much quicker access to the funds when they are needed." This year, the administration is arguing that it doesn't know how many troops we'll need to keep in Iraq after the "surge" and so can't make good estimates. Critics of the war have generally seen the tactic as a way to camouflage how much money is being spent. Budget hawks see it as a ploy to cloak how quickly the country is adding to the national debt. Facing complaints from multiple directions, President Bush started at least making guesstimates last year when he put money for Iraq in the regular 2007 budget. But in 2008, he's back to his old bad habits.

Paying for an unpopular war through this drip-by-drip process makes it harder to figure out how much money it has actually cost - and conversely, how much money we could have used for other purposes if we hadn't gone to war in the first place. And the situation with Iraq is especially confusing. Some of the money for the war comes from the regular defense budget; some of it was packaged in supplemental spending bills. The administration's budgets mix money for the war in Iraq with money for Afghanistan and the wider war on terror. Consequently, it's not exactly crystal clear how much money it has cost to remove Saddam Hussein and fight the insurgency in Iraq. The question even confused members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group who complained that "detailed analyses by budget experts are required to answer what should be a simple question: 'how much money is the President requesting for the war in Iraq?'"

The grand total? As of last summer, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the country had spent over $600 billion on the global war on terror since 9/11. The educated guess is that about 70 percent of that figure ($400 billion or so) has been spent in Iraq. With the President's new $70 billion request, we're approaching a half-a-trillion dollar mark. Maybe that's one reason the administration has decided to put off the bad news until next year. That -- and dropping this problem squarely in the lap of the next president.

But here's the second confusing fact about what we've spent on the war in Iraq. The country is facing a ballooning federal deficit and owes over $9 trillion dollars in debt. A lot of Americans have been clinging to the idea that if the country hadn't spent so much money in Iraq, the federal budget would be balanced, and we'd be sitting on easy street - at least in terms of the government's finances. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. From 2001 through 2007, while we were spending that $600 billion on Iraq, Afghanistan and everything else in the war on terror, the government added four times that much to the national debt - a staggering $2.3 trillion dollars. Or, to put it another way, the government spent more last year on interest payments for our $9 trillion debt than it did for the Iraq war. So the war isn't the sole reason for the country's budget problems, not by any stretch of the imagination.

The fancy dancing with the finances for the war in Iraq not only confuses voters about how much the war has cost, it also obscures the deeper, more dangerous budget problems we face. The real threats to the federal budget - the government's staggering debt load, looming obligations for the baby boomers and skyrocketing health costs - have relatively little to do with the war.

In a strange way, both sides gain something from the confusion. The administration gets to portray the country's budget problems as an unavoidable consequence of the war - nothing to do with how the nation's finances have been managed. And the war's opponents get to comfort themselves with the thought that once we get out of Iraq, our budget problems will automatically fix themselves.

The public has a right to demand that its leaders be more honest about what it costs to go to war, and what we've spent in Iraq in particular. But we also need to be more honest with ourselves. We should mourn the loss of life, and we can regret the cost to the national pocketbook, but our policies in Iraq are neither the sole cause nor the sole solution to our budget problems.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson are co-authors of Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis and editors of Public Agenda Online.