Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The 166 Billion Dollar Man

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 16, 2003 --  

With the shopping malls filled with flashy new goods offered as fantastic holiday gifts for friends and family, wise consumers must take care. A battery-powered tie rack organizer may seem like a neat idea, but is it really worth $100? Probably not. This doesn't mean that Dad's closet isn't filled with wadded-up ties that need organizing. This doesn't mean that there isn't another tie-organizing solution that might solve this problem. It simply means that, all things considered, there is something more important that can be done with five $20 bills.

Now keep this in mind as you consider the latest idea offered by lefty Presidential Candidate Howard Dean. In responding to the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Dean made sure to start with a generous heaping of caveats about why capturing the evil dictator was a good thing. Then he returned to his signature attacks on the wisdom of launching the Second Gulf War, decrying the "$166 billion" that has been spent so far, and saying that a wise president could have done it with far less money.1

It's hard to estimate the total costs of the Iraq war and occupation, and the Bush administration certainly doesn't like to talk about it. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has infamously dismissed questions about money with the canned answer that the ultimate war costs are "unknowable." What is known is that Congress has allocated two supplemental payments of over $80 billion each - together about the same as Dean's figures. Given that the logistical expenses associated with massing troops and occupying Iraq for a year are not declining, by this time next year the United States probably will have spent over $300 billion in its Iraq adventure.

Was capturing Saddam Hussein worth the $166 billion that Dean mentioned? While most Americans were as thrilled as Iraqis to hear of the brutal former strongman cowering in a hole in the ground, the sense of justice created by that mental image is not worth any price. It is certainly not worth, for example, taking all the money out of every single American's bank account and using it to fund the occupation of Iraq.

Fortunately for Americans, this isn't quite happening -- yet. Like many over-zealous and fiscally irresponsible holiday shoppers, the Bush administration has long since discovered the idea of credit. Sure, that battery-powered tie rack might not be worth $100 out of your pocket. But what if you could put it on your Mastercard, and not worry about it until 2004? Better yet, what if the store offered an easy plan, where you didn't have to make any payments for over a year or more? All of a sudden, such an expensively mediocre tie-rack doesn't sound like such a bad idea, after all.

Financial planners and debt counselors would wince at this reasoning. But this is exactly the strategy that the Bush Administration has used. The administration has barely deflected criticism about non-existent "weapons of mass destruction." They've reinvented the war as being about getting rid of a brutal dictator and helping the Iraqis. This new justification is so touching that it almost sounds like a Jimmy Carter speech. But as nicely disingenuous as this sentiment is, the effort is not worth any price. The costs of the Iraq war are being hidden from Americans by putting it on credit for them to pay later.

By this time next year, the Bush administration will have charged about $1000 for every man, woman and child in the country to pay for the war and occupation. Will the man sitting on the couch in Boone, Iowa with his wife and two kids think the idea of Saddam cowering in a hole is worth the $4000 share owed by his family? Isn't there another way that the world could have gotten rid of the dictator without putting hundreds of millions of Americans thousands of dollars further into debt?

The world has more than one awful dictator. North Korea's Kim Jong Il has killed millions of people through forced starvation -- making Saddam Hussein's evil statistics look tame by comparison. And there are plenty of others. There's Burma's Than Shwe, Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko, and Turkmenistan's Niazov - the self-proclaimed Great Turkmenbashi.

Each of these is a terrible man. Each one deserves to be chased until he is reduced to cowering in a dirty "spider hole." But at $166 billion per dictator, such holiday gifts would not be worth the expenditure to Americans - even if payments weren't due until well after the holiday season.

Related Web Columns:

Presidents Lie, June 24, 2003

Drinking Your Own Kool-Aid
The Terrible Costs of an Inevitable War
, March 4, 2003

A Dangerous Distraction, December 24, 2002


1. The Boston Globe, 'Dean Doctrine' Stresses Alliances, December 16, 2003