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Iraq War Cost Could Soar, Pentagon Says

When planners add the expense of an extended occupation and aid to allies, estimates could hit $100 billion, or twice those of a month ago.

February 26, 2003|Peter G. Gosselin and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has begun telling the White House and Congress that defeating Iraq and occupying the country for six months could cost as much as $85 billion, according to sources -- considerably more than what senior administration officials have been saying in public.

Combined with aid for regional allies such as Turkey, the price tag for the conflict could top the $100-billion mark, twice the war costs cited just last month by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and an amount that the White House dismissed as outlandish last fall.

And the tally could rise further. Indeed, some close to the process say war planners have no firm grip on the conflict's final costs, a fact that is causing consternation among administration policymakers as the nation edges closer to war.

"It's like watching numbers roll higher and higher on a slot machine," said one State Department official, who asked not to be named.

This official said that during recent interagency meetings, White House budget aides "put their hands over their ears and said, " 'We're not listening.' "

"We can't take any more requests. Get a grip on this process and figure out exactly what you're planning," the official remembered the aides as saying. "They basically said, 'Get ahold of yourselves.' "

An Office of Management and Budget spokesman refused to comment on this account Tuesday and said that the administration has yet to settle on how much it will ask Congress to provide in order to pay for the war. President Bush's budgets for this fiscal year and next included no money for a war with Iraq.

"The president has not yet been presented with any numbers" for war costs, said OMB communications director Trent Duffy. The costs are "all subject to decisions the president has yet to make," said Duffy, "so it's premature to speculate what they might be."

Bush suggested Tuesday that war costs must come second to national security.

"There are all kinds of estimates about the cost of war," the president told reporters after a session with his new economic advisors. "But the risk of doing nothing, the risk of the security of this country being jeopardized at the hands of a madman with weapons of mass destruction, far exceeds the risks of any action."

Sources said that Bush met with Rumsfeld and OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. on Tuesday to discuss war costs and the price of a U.S. occupation of Iraq that officials expect would follow.

Officials with the Pentagon, the State Department and OMB hoped to have a budget proposal assembled and ready to present to Congress by the end of next week.

Washington has been abuzz about a war's impact on the federal budget and the economy since last fall, when former White House economic advisor Lawrence B. Lindsey estimated that the conflict's costs could run between $100 billion and $200 billion, and come cheap at that price. Other administration officials rushed to dismiss the estimate and Lindsey was subsequently fired at least in part, many speculate, because of his willingness to put a price tag on the confrontation.

Since then, lawmakers, OMB and Congressional Budget Office analysts and outside experts have generally estimated that the immediate costs of a war -- deployment of U.S. troops, fighting and early occupation -- at between $50 billion and $60 billion. In recent interviews, Rumsfeld has put the price tag at "under $50 billion."

Analysts cautioned that the new $80 billion to $85 billion estimate may not cover exactly the same ground as previous estimates and may represent more of an opening bid by the Pentagon in coming negotiations with OMB and Congress than a measured tally of war costs.

The new figures do not include such costs as aid to allies. Sources said that separate from the $80-billion plus, the State Department will ask Congress for an extra $10 billion to $18 billion for aid to allies.

And the figures do not include a prolonged occupation of Iraq by U.S. and coalition troops after a war. That is expected to last for years, not the six months reflected in the new estimates.

A top Army official testified Tuesday that the occupation could require "several hundred thousand soldiers."

Impact on Budget

Word of the new war cost figures sent independent analysts scrambling for their calculators and Capitol Hill staffers wondering aloud how Congress can write a budget for the next fiscal year when such huge amounts are missing from this year's spending plan.

"These are considerably higher numbers than what people had been anticipating," said Steven Kosiak, a veteran defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

"They suggest that either the size of the force [the U.S. expects to field] is going to be bigger, or the length of the conflict is going longer" than predicted, he said.

"Logistically, this is going to make marking up a 2004 budget harder," said a veteran congressional staffer. "It's going to make selling the president's [tax cut] package a lot harder."

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