No easy pricetag for Iraq war

SUMMARY: The cost of fighting the war in Iraq is a moving, and disputed, target but Democratic candidates don't mind taking a shot.

For purposes of opposing the war, just about any massive dollar figure works as they assail the escalating costs during campaign appearances.

The question should be simple: How much is the war costing Americans?

Still, a half-dozen leading government entities and non-profits can't agree. The Office of Managment and Budget in the White House doesn't separate out spending in Iraq from the global war on terror, and even then it tracks only supplemental spending bills and doesn't include money in other federal budgets.

Even ask the two premier nonpartisan research groups and you'll discover a mini-sectarian conflict.

The Congressional Budget Office — the official fiscal analysts for Congress —takes a conservative approach in analyzing the $602-billion it deemed as spending for U.S. operation in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terror since 2001.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service — the public policy research arm of Congress — estimates the grand total to date at $610.5-billion.

They are looking at the same sources for numbers, just drawing different conclusions. Analysts do note the difference is about 1 percent, but then again, with this many zeros, that means more than $8-billion, an amount larger than South Carolina's entire state budget.

The core difference is how the two categorize all the dollars. CRS adds about $4 billion to the total from the Defense Department budget, figuring some of DOD's spending is aimed at the war on terror. CBO doesn't. Likewise, billions more authorized by Congress with no specific military operation don't get designated by CBO, but CRS attempts to earmark them using past trends as a guide.

(All of this guesswork is necessary because the defense department refuses to provide a spending breakdown by operation, analyst Amy Belasco notes in her CRS report.)

If all this makes your head spin, join the club.

It only gets worse as you get into the numbers. Do you want to look at appropriated funds or obligations? For the Iraq war or the larger war on terror? By year, by month or by day?

We'll defer to the candidates at this point. When Democratic hopefuls talk about bringing troops home, they typically note the amount appropriated by Congress specifically for the Iraq war.

CBO estimates the total budgeted for Iraq is $413-billion to date with $123-billion being spent in 2007 alone.

CRS figures the approximate total for Iraq is $450.4-billion with $135.2-billion in 2007.

The massive numbers mean little to most folks so U.S. Sen. Barack Obama tried to break it down during a recent presidential forum in Washington, D.C.

In talking about the need for a new energy plan he pivoted and said, "And it's going to be difficult for us to do this as long as we're spending $275-million a day on a war that should have never been authorized ..."

Obama's campaign couldn't find the exact source for his number, but government figures show he's in the ballpark.

CBO measures the per-day spending since the war started as $249.2-million; CRS puts that number at $271.8-million.

In seeking to justify Obama's number, the campaign only complicated the matter further by giving yet another figure. According to an analysis provided by Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman, the U.S. is spending $305-million a day for the Iraq war.

They used the larger CRS figures to project the cost through the end of the 2008 budget year. Their math works like this: Take the entire tabulated cost of the Iraq conflict to date, (CRS says $450.4-billion) add the estimated Bush administration request in 2008 ($166-billion) and divide by the number of days from the start of the conflict, March 19, 2003, to the end of the next budget year, Oct. 1, 2008 (2023 days).

The number Obama used at the forum, Psaki concluded, "is actually a more conservative estimate of the average spent per day."

Democratic challenger Mike Gravel attempted to put the cost of the war in scale when he told the crowd at a Howard University presidential forum in June 2007 that "21-million Americans could have a four-year college scholarship for the money we've squandered in Iraq. 7.6-million teachers could have been hired last year if we weren't squandering this money."

The former U.S. senator's campaign didn't respond to requests to provide documentation to support those numbers, so we did our own figuring.

We interpreted Gravel's comments to mean the Iraq money could cover the scholarships or the teachers.

The College Board puts the average cost of tuition for a four-year public university in 2006 at $5,836. Multiply by four years and 21-million students and the total reaches $490.2-billion, significantly higher than even the highest estimate by CRS.

The U.S. Department of Education reports the average teacher salary was $47,750 in 2005, the most recent year available. Not counting benefits, the sum approached $363-billion, which is much lower than both.

At the same debate, Kucinich threw out an even wilder number when he said the U.S. "will spend anywhere from one to two trillion dollars on this war..."

Whether he's correct depends on how long troops are deployed. But the cost of the larger war on terror could easily fall in the range he suggests.

CRS and CBO project that even if troop levels drastically decrease to 30,000 by 2010 the grand total could approach $1-trillion to $1.5-trillion in the next 10 years.

One thing is for sure: as long as the true price tag for the Iraq war is unknown, candidates have wide leeway to make bold statements.



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