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2011-07-08

As Debt Talks Threaten Medicare, Social Security, Study Finds U.S. Spending $4 Trillion on War

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As part of ongoing debt negotiations, the White House has proposed slashing more than $4 trillion from annual budget deficits over the next decade—twice what Obama had proposed earlier. While much of the talk in Washington centers on taxes, Social Security and Medicare, far less attention is being paid to the growing cost of the U.S. wars overseas. A new report from Brown University has estimated the true cost of the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will end up costing approximately $4 trillion, far more than the Bush or Obama administrations have acknowledged. The authors of the study reveal that because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020. We speak with Neta Crawford, co-director of the Costs of War Project and a professor of political science at Boston University. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House Thursday, and he vowed not to sign a short-term extension of the U.S. $14.3 [trillion] debt ceiling beyond the approaching August 2nd deadline. As part of the debt negotiations, the White House has proposed slashing more than $4 trillion from annual budget deficits over the next decade, twice what Obama had promised earlier.

While much of the talk in Washington centers on taxes, Social Security and Medicare, far less attention is being paid to the growing cost of U.S. wars overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: And in a moment, we’re going to talk about what those costs are, but Sharif, I wanted to just finally ask you, before we talk about the trillions of dollars that are being spent, about the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood participating in this protest in a way they haven’t before, in fact, in the past, working with the military in these last few months. Sharif?

Ah, OK, we just lost Sharif, but we will show the photographs that Sharif has been taking at Tahrir, and we will also re-tweet his tweets throughout the day at democracynow.org. Thanks so much to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting to us from Tahrir, as we move from Egypt to what is happening now in the United States, these negotiations that are going on. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, well, the U.S. military and the C.I.A. are currently carrying out operations in at least six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. A new report released by Brown University has estimated the true cost of the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will end up costing approximately $4 trillion, far more than the Bush or Obama administration have acknowledged. The authors of a new study reveal that because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020. It could cost nearly another $1 trillion to pay for medical care and disability for current and future war veterans.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the Costs of War report, we’ll go to Boston now to talk with Neta Crawford, co-director of the Costs of War Project, professor of political science at Boston University.

The significance of this report, even as they are debating the deficit in Washington and talking about agreeing on deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Neta Crawford, the costs that the United States is spending right now in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and what you’re pointing out in this report, equally in Pakistan, right now?

NETA CRAWFORD: Yes, the United States has already spent about $3 trillion, and it will spend much more than that over the next several decades, including that maybe a trillion, that was already mentioned by your reporter, on veterans and medical.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just talk—lay out for us what you have found, these massive costs that we in this country, I think, have very little awareness of, the media covering actual war less and less.

NETA CRAWFORD: Well, there are two aspects of that. First, the president and many people focused on just the Pentagon’s appropriations for the wars through the last 10 years, and that’s $1.3 trillion in current—in constant dollars. But the costs are deeper than that. They go to veterans’ medical and disability costs, foreign assistance, homeland security, and then, as you mentioned, interest on the debt. When you add all that up, it’s about twice what we tend to talk about, just if we just focus on Pentagon appropriations.

And then the other element of the cost is that future cost, which we must pay: the interest on the debt and veterans’ medical and disability. Then there’s another layer of costs which we weren’t able to really fully calculate, which are the social costs to families and also the cost to state and local governments for veterans’ care. And then there are many others, pockets of costs, if you look all over the U.S. government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, on yesterday’s show, we talked about the problems of post-traumatic stress with many veterans and the suicide rates. What portion of this cost that is never factored in did you conclude was a result of both the need for current medical treatment for returning veterans as well as future treatment?

NETA CRAWFORD: Right, well, the U.S. has already spent already about $32 billion in medical and disability for veterans, but that does not include what families are spending privately nor what state and local governments are spending. And then, of course, all of this is an underestimate of the toll, because, as you know, until recently, the U.S. wasn’t including many people who do have traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress, because those were underdiagnosed.

AMY GOODMAN: Why aren’t we seeing this reflected in the conversations on the networks, as this whole discussion about deficit takes place, the massive cost that is going into the state of war rather than back into the states of this country that are in such dire need, Professor Crawford?

NETA CRAWFORD: Well, I think it’s partly that, after 9/11, we’re in such shock and fear that this lingered, and the tendency not to question what were—seemed to be defense expenditures, where actually they could have been questioned. So, that’s a long-term sort of hangover of the 9/11 attacks, is our sort of inability to be questioning of these budgets.

And I think another element here is that, again, the costs are sort of hidden from view and put in these different budgets, so it’s hard, unless you take a more comprehensive view, to get a handle on the scale of the costs.

A third factor is perhaps the fact that these wars have been funded mostly through special appropriations or emergency appropriations, until recently. And then, those costs are not scrutinized as much by Congress as they ought to be.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But then, of course, one part of that, that has been now structurally put into our budget, is homeland security. Your assessment of the enormous expenditure? Because it seems that no matter what the budget deficit is, there is always money available for more efforts at homeland security. Could you talk about this impact of actually militarizing the domestic budget of the United States?

NETA CRAWFORD: Right. That’s about an additional $400 billion over the last 10 years for homeland security. And of course, it’s in a way ironic, because at the same time that the U.S. has spent this money to increase preparedness, it took away National Guard troops and equipment and moved them abroad, so that, in a sense, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Crawford, included in the costs of war, you’ve got the financial costs, far more than has been estimated before here in this country. I mean, Professors Stiglitz and Bilmes at Harvard, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning—the Nobel Prize-winning economists, say we’re talking about actually estimates, over years, of something like $5 trillion, but also the human casualties costs of war.

NETA CRAWFORD: Right. We calculated—estimated that between 225,000 to 250,000 people have died. That’s including soldiers, civilians, contractors. But more than that, we know that this is a conservative estimate, because in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, there’s been a tendency to undercount and not report the direct war dead. And in addition, we tend to focus on those who were killed by bombs and bullets, but pay less attention to those who died because of lack of safe drinking water or disease, displacement and inability to eat. So, the rates of malnourishment are still high in Iraq. Malnutrition is very high in Afghanistan. And many millions of people in Pakistan are displaced and have irregular access to food and safe drinking water.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Crawford, we’ll leave it there, but we’ll link to your report at democracynow.org. It’s called "Costs of War." Professor Crawford is professor of political science at Boston University.

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