In coordination with and other anti-war activists who are mounting a $20 million ad campaign to tie the war in Iraq to the slowing U.S. economy, Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz has authored a book pegging the cost of the Iraq war at $3 trillion. This is up from his 2006 estimate that the war would cost between $1 trillion to $2 trillion. But Stiglitz also told Bloomberg Radio this month, “It’s much more like $5 trillion. … We were trying to make Americans understand how expensive this war was so we didn’t want to quibble about a dime here or a dime there.” Yes, because when it comes to weighing the costs and benefits of foreign policy decisions, who would ever want a little thing like accuracy to get in the way of a blatantly political argument.

But to be fair, Stiglitz never even claims to tackle the question of what if any benefits set off the costs of Iraq. As Christopher Hitchens points out, the real choice in Iraq was between the removal of Saddam Hussein or the continued coexistence with his regime. The continued containment of Saddam had its own costs that Stiglitz blithely ignores. Hitchens names a few:

[T]he costs of enforcing the no-fly zones for an indefinite future, the costs of maintaining rather questionable United Nations sanctions on a crumbling regional economy and society, the costs of extinguishing the huge fires set by Saddam Hussein in the Kuwaiti oil-fields, the costs of future fights picked by him and the cost of cleaning up after the genocidal and aggressive adventures which were his government’s raison d’etre.

Not so often mentioned by the MoveOn types is the fact that Stiglitz pegs the costs of the war in Afghanistan at $1.95 trillion. Are we to assume liberals are now against this war too? But more importantly, since time travel has not yet been invented, policymakers should be asking themselves what are the costs and benefits of American actions moving forward. And as former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew explains, the costs of rapid withdrawal from Iraq would be very high:

The costs of leaving Iraq unstable would be high. Jihadists everywhere would be emboldened. I have met many Gulf leaders and know that their deep fear is that a precipitate U.S. withdrawal would gravely jeopardize their security. A hurried withdrawal from Iraq would cause the leaders of many countries to conclude that the American people cannot tolerate the nearly 4,000 casualties they have suffered in Iraq and that in a protracted asymmetrical war the U.S. government will not have its people’s support to bear the pain that is necessary to prevail.

Yew continues: “Whatever candidates might say in the course of this presidential campaign, I cannot believe that any American president could afford to walk away from Iraq so lightly, damage American prestige and influence, and so undermine the credibility of American security guarantees.” Former Barack Obama adviser Samantha Power, at least on some level, clearly agrees with Yew. Before Obama fired her, she downplayed Obama’s commitment to rapidly pull troops from Iraq, telling the BBC that Obama would “not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.”

Sensing they were politically vulnerable from anti-war crusaders in their own party, the Obama campaign quickly responded. Obama himself said in Wyoming, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009. Don’t be confused.” Campaign manager David Plouffe chipped in, calling Obama’s 16-month withdrawal plan “a rock-solid commitment.”

Stiglitz claims that his numbers are merely the first in a conversation about the costs and benefits of the war in Iraq. But his 2006 paper makes no such hedges, concluding: “Expenditures on the Iraq war have no benefits [for America.]” The American people deserve a real conversation about Iraq, not the lies and distortions of

Quick Hits:

  • All three remaining presidential candidates are taking advantage of Republican appropriators’ unwillingness to curb wasteful spending by cosponsoring an amendment by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that would require any earmarked spending project for 2009 get a two-thirds vote to go forward.
  • Supposedly environmentally friendly biofuel refineries are destroying our nation’s streams and rivers with leftover liquid oil and grease.
  • President Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic reforms are moving too slowly to stem the flow of young French entrepreneurs escaping France’s stifling labor laws and “cradle-to-grave entitlements.”
  • The Center for Union Facts is taking nominations from the nation’s parents to name the “worst unionized teacher in America” who will be “rewarded” with $10,000.
  • New ethics laws passed in Maryland have done little to stem the influence of lobbyists in Annapolis.