Launching 36 Tomahawk cruise missiles in an apparently failed attempt to kill Saddam Hussein: $50 million.
Defeating Iraq's military and rebuilding the country: at least $99 billion.
Getting revenge against Saddam for making your dad look like a wimp: priceless.
Perhaps this is what George W. Bush was thinking when he authorized the first strike against Baghdad last week. It's difficult to divine what cost-benefit analyses he is going by, given that in his occasional, scripted TV appearances, Bush has offered few specifics on just how much it will cost U.S. taxpayers to conquer, occupy and rebuild Iraq.
Nobody really knows
This week, Bush finally announced he would request $62.6 billion from Congress for the war effort, plus several billion for "domestic security" and aid to Israel, Afghanistan and U.S. allies, totaling almost $75 billion. That request, however, was to cover only six months of operations in Iraq and included little money for post-war rebuilding efforts, and nothing for peacekeeping operations.
The request also doesn't include what's already been spent over the years to build up the massive arsenal being unleashed. Much of the $62.6 billion is simply being used to transport already paid-for equipment and troops to Iraq and, hopefully, back.
In reality, nobody really knows what the total campaign will cost, because it all depends on how the war plays out. The most comprehensive estimate, however, has come from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which published a study of the potential costs last November, based on the research of several leading economists and global-security experts.
According to the group, the war and its aftermath could cost the United States anywhere from $99 billion under the best-case scenarios, to $1.9 trillion that's 1,900 billion dollars if things go terribly wrong.
"The difference," writes Yale economist William Nordhaus in the report, "lies in the duration of the conflict, the total damage to Iraq, civilian casualties, the potential for unconventional warfare, and the spread of the conflict outside Iraq."
50 years ago
The dizzying war-cost estimates, coming during a time of record projected deficits and Bush's proposed multibillion-dollar tax cut, are resurrecting an age-old debate over the nation's priorities. Almost exactly 50 years ago, on April 16 of 1953, a former U.S. Army general made the following observation:
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities, two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
The former general was President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican.
This week, Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic congressman from Ohio who is running for president, used similar comparisons in reaction to Bush's funding request.
"The bill for this unprovoked attack is just starting to come in, and the American people should start worrying that the administration has lost control over the costs," Kucinich said. "In fiscal terms, the costs for this unprovoked, and therefore preventable, war could have covered giving every American child-safe, enriching pre-kindergarten classes or every American senior citizen prescription drug coverage for one year. ...
"The Administration's priorities are out of step with what America needs, and this war will cause America more problems than it could ever solve: It will fan anti-American flames overseas, divert attention from unmet domestic needs, such as stimulating the weak economy, and plunge the U.S. government deeper into debt that today's children will be paying when they are adults."
On the other hand, perhaps no price tag is too big to "rid the world of evil-doers," as Bush has promised to do. Then again, for far less money, Bush could rid the world of a lot of other evils that are threatening to kill or harm far more people than Saddam is, critics have pointed out.
The global AIDS epidemic, for instance, is expected to kill 68 million people by the year 2020, although a plan to dramatically reduce the number of deaths could be put in place for less than $10 billion.
Other examples abound. Below, following the popular "Harper's Index" magazine format, are some statistics to help place the vast war-cost estimates into perspective.*
Projected cost of war with Iraq (low estimate): $100 billion
Annual cost of eradicating world poverty, according to a 1997 UN study: $80 billion
Number of years it would take you to give away $100 billion, if you stood on a street corner 24 hours a day, seven days a week, handing out a $1 bill to a passerby every 10 seconds: 31,710
Proportion of the world's 6.3 billion people who survive on less than $1 per day: 1 in 5
Proportion who survive on less than $2 per day:
1 in 2
Number of disabled U.S. military veterans being denied full disability benefits on top of retirement pay: 700,000
Number of years for which the cost of war with Iraq would cover full benefits and pay for these veterans: 17
Number of years for which the war's cost could fund the entire general-fund budget of the City of Colorado Springs (at the current budget level): 470
Estimated cost of the war for taxpayers in Colorado: $1.4 billion
Cost of the war for each man, woman and child in Colorado: $317
Decrease in the number of jobs in Colorado last year: 14,500
Number of jobs that $1.4 billion could pay for, at an hourly wage of $20 plus benefits, for an entire year: 24,211
Cuts currently being made in Colorado's state budget, including reductions in services for the developmentally disabled, mental health treatment, and child welfare services: $969 million
Number of Coloradans with serious mental-health disorders who lack access to treatment: 67,000
Number of children lacking health insurance in Colorado: 131,000
Number of years for which $1.4 billion would provide health care for every uninsured child in Colorado: 3 1/2
Cost of one Apache attack helicopter, used by the U.S. Army to destroy armored Iraqi forces around Baghdad: $17 million
Proportion of Apache Indians who live in poverty on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, where members of the tribe were resettled in the 1870s after being rounded up by the U.S. Army: 6 out of 10
Number of HIV-positive people in poor countries who could receive a year's supply of life-saving medications for the cost of one F-117 bomber, used in raids on Baghdad: 215,000
Percentage of the world's 36 million people with HIV/AIDS who lack access to life-saving medications: 95
* Sources: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Defense Information, City of Colorado Springs, Colorado Department of Labor, Doctors Without Borders, Mental Health Association of Colorado, National Priorities Project, U.S. Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, United Nations, World Bank and press reports.