Congress Wants to Know Cost of War
Dissatisfied With Pentagon Figures, Lawmakers Ask CBO for Estimates

By Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 22, 2002; Page A24

Bush administration officials told Congress last week that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq would cost as little as $40 billion, but skeptical Democratic leaders asked Capitol Hill's nonpartisan budget office for a second opinion.

Lawmakers from both parties have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as the White House's refusal to confront the financial cost of a new front in the war on terrorism. Price tags have ranged from the Pentagon's $40 billion to as much as $200 billion. Officials have even floated the idea that reconstruction costs would be covered by the sale of Iraqi oil.

But military experts and congressional staff say none of those estimates appears to be based on rigorous analysis. "It goes back to the entire philosophy that if you go to war, you worry about the bills later," said James W. Dyer, Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

President Bill Clinton's Office of Management and Budget drafted detailed funding requests for $5.8 billion just after NATO's 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, and included estimates not only for the cost of fighting to expel Yugoslav forces from Kosovo but also to rebuild the Serbian province.

The administration has kept estimates vague and upbeat. Pentagon officials have told Congress the cost could be $50 billion to $100 billion. But defense officials also said it could be as little as half the $61 billion cost of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, or $40 billion in current dollars. That suggests to Democrats that the administration may be low-balling the cost to build support for an enterprise that could involve long occupation and rebuilding, which is not considered in the Pentagon figures.

"They need to be a lot more open about what the downside risks might be," said Scott Lilly, the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic staff director.

Looking for what they say will be a more objective analysis, Democrats on the House and Senate Budget committees asked the Congressional Budget Office on Friday to draft estimates for multiple fighting scenarios and durations.

"The estimate should be constructed and displayed in full recognition of the many significant uncertainties that currently exist regarding how a military campaign against Iraq might unfold, and what stabilization and reconstruction might entail," wrote Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Democrats portrayed the move as nonadversarial. "Congress is committed to providing all the resources needed to safeguard America's national security," said Thomas S. Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee. "We need a CBO estimate because the cost of war means we may have to reconsider other budget priorities."

The White House says President Bush has made no decision about Iraq. Privately, officials say realistic estimates are elusive because the size of the force has not been determined and they are unsure how much other nations would pay. Allies paid for all but about $7.5 billion of the Gulf War, but officials expect the United States would have to shoulder much more of the cost of a second confrontation.

The Gulf War deployment included about 500,000 troops. The Pentagon is telling lawmakers an Iraqi invasion would require about 250,000 troops, with Britain supplying as many as 30,000. Pentagon planners also are developing what they are calling a "light option" of 70,000 to 80,000 troops.

Administration officials have been trying to reassure lawmakers, voters and other governments about the cost of deposing Saddam Hussein. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill told the Chamber of Commerce in Portland, Maine, last week: "Whatever it is that's finally decided to be done, we will succeed and we can afford it."

Similarly, OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said any decision by Bush could be managed, in part by "rotating resources from things that are of less than life and death importance to meet the life and death imperatives of the moment."

Providing what some of his colleagues consider a pessimistic estimate, White House economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last week that an "upper bound" cost of a war would be between 1 and 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. That translates to $100 billion to $200 billion.

Jacob "Jack" Lew, who drafted the Kosovo budget as Clinton's budget director, said that getting the number right is important for the debate ahead. "If it's too low, it raises the question of whether you're willing to stick it out," he said. "If it's too high, you raise the bar too high for getting into the conflict."

But many members of both parties are questioning whether the potential cost of attacking Iraq would make much difference in lawmakers' decisions, because Democrats have become increasingly supportive of Bush's Iraq policy. Indeed, lawmakers fear there could be a political backlash from even asking about cost. "We're all just scared to death of this issue," a Democratic aide said.

To a handful of Democrats, such fears are infuriating. Nineteen House Democrats announced their opposition to war in Iraq on Thursday, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) promised that "dozens more" will follow. "My constituents are being told this country cannot afford the cost of prescription drugs for seniors," Kucinich said. "People are bound to begin asking why can we afford this war."

Most experts say a detailed cost estimate is next to impossible now, and estimates on previous conflicts have always been wrong. The Clinton administration's Kosovo estimate was ultimately swallowed by the cost of one military debacle: the failed effort to introduce Apache attack helicopters to the conflict. Even the war in Afghanistan was expected to include a long, hard winter fight and a major spring offensive against al Qaeda, said Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Pentagon and Capitol Hill analysts have concluded that some costs of the new confrontation with Iraq would be higher than in 1991. The military would undoubtedly use more expensive precision-guided munitions, for instance, and the duration of the land war would be longer. Troop salaries and National Guard and Army Reserve call-up costs would also be higher.

Scott R. Feil, co-director of the Association of the U.S. Army's Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that keeping the peace after overthrowing Hussein would take 75,000 U.S. troops and $16.2 billion a year. But actual rebuilding could be a wash, because reconstruction could be funded by selling Iraqi oil, congressional and independent experts said.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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