THE COST OF THE WAR….I’m

THE COST OF THE WAR….I’m reading In Retrospect right now, Robert McNamara’s memoir of his tenure as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, and I’m still waiting to see if he addresses the most interesting question of the whole debacle. I should finish the book today, and I’ll probably have a few comments then.

But one thing that he has made crystal clear (as have legions of other commentators on the war) is that he thinks LBJ’s biggest mistake was escalating the war without ever going back to Congress and having a serious national debate about it. Regardless of whether a war is a good idea, McNamara says, it has to have popular support or it’s doomed to eventual failure.

This is something we should be talking about a lot more today, not as it relates to the Iraq war itself ? which is unlikely to last more than a few weeks ? but as it relates to the postwar reconstruction. President Bush claims to be concerned about doing the job right in Iraq and truly planting the seeds of democracy, but so far he’s been unwilling to really make the case to the American public about why this is important, how long it might take, and how much it will cost.

So let me reduce this to its simplest terms: the $100 billion price tag for the war itself is a sunk cost, but my guess is that a comprehensive reconstruction program for Iraq and some of the surrounding areas could easily cost $50 billion a year for the next decade. If anything, that might be low, but for now just go ahead and humor me with this figure.

Are you willing to spend this money to make sure reconstruction goes well? It amounts to around $170 per person, or $700 for a family of four. And no deficit spending allowed: if you want to spend this money, it comes out of increased taxes.

Assume for the moment that this money will all be spent wisely on programs that you support. Just focus on the amount. Is democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East worth this much to you? For the next decade?

And when ? if ever ? will President Bush get around to asking us?

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