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Turning Over the Price Tag

February 27, 2003

Congress has finally started to ask how much a war with Iraq might cost. The answers would be daunting in good times. In a bad economy, they are a punch to the gut.

Pentagon planners say defeating Saddam Hussein's regime and occupying Iraq for six months could cost as much as $85 billion.

Add the billions more that Turkey has all but extorted in bazaar-like bargaining to let in U.S. troops and the tally will go past $100 billion.

Assume that an occupation will take much longer than six months to stabilize the country, if that can be done at all, and the bill grows further.

The $100-billion figure is twice the cost Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld estimated last month. It is a powerful argument for a continued and determined U.S. effort to enlist as many other nations as possible as allies, at least partly to help pick up the tab.

The price tag also should persuade President Bush to drop his attempt to make the 2001 tax cut permanent and to forget about the lifetime savings accounts and retirement savings accounts that would remove billions more dollars in taxes down the road.

War costs are always estimates and are subject to many variables. A sergeant's monthly base pay can be $2,236 here or in Baghdad, but each of the artillery shells he fires in combat runs up the price.

It is also uncertain how many troops will be required to fight and for how long. Nor can we know the precise length of an occupation and the number of soldiers required.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's top officer and former commander of the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that several hundred thousand soldiers could be required to fight a war and an equal number to occupy Iraq after the fighting.

The 1991 Gulf War, with twice as many soldiers as are expected to be used this time, cost $61 billion, and U.S. allies absorbed most of the expense. That won't happen this time; Arab nations are less enthusiastic and less wealthy now than then; so is Japan. France, Germany or other countries lined up against the United States might step in with help for reconstruction, but not for war.

National security cannot be based on cost; the price of another massive terrorist attack on this country also is unknowable. But taxpayers deserve better information on what the combined costs of war and the White House plan for accelerated tax cuts will mean to other parts of U.S. life and government.

The federal budget deficit already is put at about $200 billion this year, and at more next year. The combined budget deficit of the states is $40 billion or more this year and projected at $65 billion or more next year.

Congress will have to appropriate war funds when and if the time comes and should have pressed the issue last fall before overwhelmingly giving Bush the authority to wage war against Hussein.

Now Congress should examine the president's budget proposal with a fresh eye and tell its constituents, the taxpayers, what they would have to forgo to pay for bullets, bombs and reconstruction of Iraq.

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