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By Janel Davis May 13, 2013

Roberts lays out financial costs of modern wars

President Barack Obama is doing his best to fend off characterization as a "lame-duck" leader, a moniker that typically plagues term-limited elected officials.

In his case, Obama has implied that it’s the unyielding Republicans refusing to compromise on issues like gun control and undoing sequestration cuts that prevent him from furthering his agenda.

Political pundits took up the issue again this month on the ABC television news program "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." The roundtable panel debated whether the president can get anything done.

"With the public being so completely disillusioned with American wars abroad that have gone on for so long … these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost every American family something like $45,000, not to mention, of course, the lives," said ABC and NPR political contributor Cokie Roberts. "It really takes the whole foreign policy option off the table when Americans say they don’t want to have our troops engaged in another war."

Since the beginning of the wars, there has been no shortage of claims about the financial costs to the average American, American families and even Americans who haven’t been born yet.

Roberts’ figure was the latest we’d heard, so PolitiFact Georgia decided to check it out.

Roberts told PolitiFact Georgia that she got her figure within the past two weeks directly from Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

In the past, wars were financed by war bonds or by raising taxes. Current wars have been funded almost entirely by borrowing, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Cost of War Project housed at Brown University.

We found various sources that have studied war costs. Some factor in future benefit costs and debt repayment; others include only funds that have been spent and approved by Congress.

Two recent studies, both published this year, estimate the cost of the two wars has reached $4 trillion. The first, published in March by Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, found that the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts will be the most expensive wars in U.S. history, totaling between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. Along with traditional war costs such as weapons and equipment, Bilmes’ study included long-term medical and disability costs for service members and their families.

The second study, by the Cost of War Project, lists current spending, including interest paid on war debt, through fiscal 2013 at $3.1 trillion. Add in future veterans’ obligations, and the amount reaches about $4 trillion. The amount could rise much higher based on future interest payments.

Census data reports almost 115 million households existed in the country from 2007-2011, according to the most recent data.

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At $4 trillion, each of the 115 million households would be responsible for just under $35,000 of the war costs. At $6 trillion, the household responsibility would rise to around $52,000.

Roberts’ claim initially seemed a bit high, but is in the range of estimates based on the most recent studies, said Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"I think it’s essential to give a full picture of costs (including debt service and future veterans’ benefits and expenses)," Preble said. "Don’t assume the cost of war ends when the shooting stops."

Other studies don’t factor in these long-term costs.

The National Priorities Project operates the Cost of War website, which keeps a running total of the costs for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This past week, the constantly increasing total had reached over $1.4 trillion. Based on that figure, each of the country’s households would be responsible for around $12,300 in war costs thus far. Data from the Congressional Budget Office also shows that about $1.4 trillion has been approved for the wars, including some funds for veterans’ benefits and services.

National Priorities, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the federal budget, includes only funds that have been appropriated by the government that can be found in appropriations documents. The site makes no attempt to project future costs, such as veterans’ benefits and medical costs.

"There are a lot of people who think that is a component," said Chris Hellman, a senior research analyst with National Priorities. "We acknowledge that this is a growing edge of what our nation’s commitment is, but we look only at the narrowly construed combat operations and related support costs of the wars."

A website feature provides the amount of the $1.4 trillion that taxpayers in each state, county and major city have paid toward the wars, and also provides a list of services that could have been provided for the same amount of money. (For example, Georgia taxpayers have contributed $35.6 billion, which could have also funded 721,000 police officers, or 4.8 million Head Start slots, or 4.7 million college scholarships, etc., for one year.)

So, do Roberts’ numbers add up?

Her claim that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have cost each U.S. household $45,000 would mean that war spending -- including future veterans’ benefits and debt service costs -- would have to be about $5.2 trillion.

The most recent studies that include these long-term costs report war spending between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. Studies that do not include the long-term costs list war costs at $1.4 trillion thus far in funds that have been approved by Congress.

Assuming Roberts’ claim factored in future expenses, her claim would fall in the appropriate range of estimated spending. But leave those out, and she comes up short.

Her claim is partially accurate, but needs a lot of context to be fully understood.

We rate Roberts’ claim Half True.

Our Sources

"This Week With George Stephanopoulos," May 5, 2013, episode

Washington Post, President Barack Obama’s April 30, 2013, news conference, transcript

"The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan," Linda Bilmes, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, March 2013

Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022, January 2012

Phone interview, Christopher A. Preble, Cato Institute, May 9, 2013

Phone interview, Chris Hellman, National Priorities Project, May 9, 2013

Phone interview, Cokie Roberts, May 10, 2013

National Priorities Project, Cost of War website

U.S. Census Bureau, USA Quick Facts, Households 2007-2011

PolitiFact, "Donna Brazile says Bush spent $1.3 trillion on tax cuts, trillions each on war and drugs for seniors," Louis Jacobson, Aug. 5, 2009

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Roberts lays out financial costs of modern wars

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