War costs continue to grow

Disclosures of substandard conditions for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center represent more than another case of Bush administration incompetence.

They show how its mishandling of the management and financing of the Iraq war has created a series of devastating side effects that go far beyond questions about its military and diplomatic policies in the Middle East.

Since President Bush sent U.S. troops to Iraq, his administration has constantly sought to minimize war costs, protect its tax cuts and avoid the government’s looming long-term fiscal problems.

The result has been to shortchange the nation’s veterans, provide insufficient equipment and training for active troops, weaken the ability to deal with threats outside Iraq and create a ticking fiscal time bomb that threatens to explode on its successor’s watch.

It seems a political lifetime since the White House slapped down economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey for suggesting a war with Iraq might cost $200 billion. Budget Director Mitch Daniels called the figure “very, very high” and said it would cost about one-third of that, some paid by U.S. allies.

But the president’s latest budget says the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will hit $662 billion next year – with a lot more likely after that.

The administration has avoided projecting long-term costs. But Linda Bilmes, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Columbia, say the ultimate cost, in both direct federal spending and the long-term economic impact, will surpass $2 trillion. And that doesn’t include increased interest costs from resulting deficits.

They calculate the budgetary total at more than $1 trillion in military costs, refurbishing and replacing military equipment and indefinite health care for thousands of wounded veterans.

They add a like amount from the long-term economic impact, including the economic and human costs for loss of life and injuries, additional oil costs because of the war, and the budgetary impact of not making needed domestic investments because of war costs.

Though some lawmakers have raised these issues, they have received little scrutiny until now, in part because of the reluctance of GOP-controlled Congresses to perform their normal oversight functions of the Bush administration.

But that is changing.

Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who has long warned of inadequate training and equipment for troops in Iraq, now chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. He has proposed requiring a specific amount of training before more troops are sent there.

Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, who has repeatedly accused the administration of providing insufficient funds to meet veterans’ needs, now heads the appropriations panel that oversees the Veterans Administration budget.

At a hearing this week, he called on the administration to check and report back on whether the health and safety of veterans is being jeopardized by similar conditions at any VA facilities.

Amid this closer congressional scrutiny, Defense Secretary Robert Gates shook up the high command of both the Army and Walter Reed. And the White House named a bipartisan commission to review “the services America is providing our returning wounded warriors.”

Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts, who chaired one House hearing, made clear that the Walter Reed situation exemplified a broader problem due to underfunding, inadequate planning, growing casualties and the administration’s drive for privatization.

“As we send more and more troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, these problems are only going to get worse, not better,” he said.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush told the American Legion that, while the military has “never failed us,” U.S. troops were being “undermined by back-to-back deployments, by poor pay, by shortages of spare parts and equipment and a rapidly declining readiness.” He pledged, if elected, to “replace uncertain missions with well-defined objectives.”

More than six years later, these problems persist, in large part because of the economic and human costs of an ill-defined mission with an ever-changing objective.