Is the war in Iraq worth it? Skeptics are confident the answer is no, and some are quantifying their certainty by translating the war into dollar terms. Direct costs so far exceed a quarter-billion dollars, five times higher than the early rosy estimates of some White House officials, and that’s before adding intangibles.

In a recent academic paper, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University budget expert Linda Bilmes suggest the total “Economic Costs of the Iraq War” will be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. But anyone who takes a close look can see that their paper isn’t much more than a one-sided anti-war lecture, loaded with incessant negativity, inflammatory language and glib suggestions of military incompetence. The authors patronizingly admonish policymakers to “undertake a cost-benefit analysis before undertaking any project – especially one with as significant consequences as war.” This makes for impressive hubris in a paper that, either hypocritically or naively, considers costs alone.

When I confronted Stiglitz about ignoring the potential benefits of the Iraq war during a BBC debate, he countered that the paper is merely the first in a conversation, hinting that assessing benefits is more difficult. Yet his paper makes no such hedges, concluding bluntly, “Expenditures on the Iraq war have no benefits (for America).”

Elsewhere, they argue that the only clear beneficiaries of the war are “oil companies” and “certain defense contractors.” No mention of the Kurds or the Shiites. No mention of the widespread winds of change in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

This is willful ignorance, not the “cool, hard analysis of the kind for which economics has long earned a reputation” that the authors pretend.

Stiglitz and Bilmes insist that carefully assessing benefits is important, then proceed to simply assert that American troops hurt our foreign relations. A few years ago, a colleague (Professor Garett Jones) and I decided to take that question seriously and began to investigate whether the presence of U.S. troops enhanced growth rates in host countries during the last half-century. Our preliminary research suggests it did – and strongly. We suspect that the active American security umbrella enhances investment. At the very least, the facts are contrary to the thesis of imperial domination.

As for costs suggested in the paper, much of the $2 trillion cost estimate is speculation about lost opportunities, not an actual burden on American taxpayers. It is a number based largely on intangible opportunity costs and assumptions of global macroeconomic and diplomatic damage. Everyone agrees that a soldier’s sacrifice implies a life unfulfilled, but Stiglitz should be called on his heartless assumption that our soldiers create zero benefits.

Moreover, the Stiglitz-Bilmes framework implies that Americans shouldn’t have fought in Bosnia, Vietnam, Korea or the two World Wars. And forget about stationing 250,000 troops annually in West Germany during the Cold War. Too expensive.

The hard fact is that more American troops died in one day on one beach during 1944 than during the entire Iraq war to date. The cost of Normandy was far higher in blood than the cost of Baghdad, yet who would attribute a value of zero to the liberation of France or the Nazi death camps? Or attach no value to the freedom of 49 million South Koreans?

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill: War is an expensive thing, but not the most expensive of things. A man unwilling to pay any price for the well-being of others is a sad creature indeed.

Tyrannical states such as the Saddam regime tax the human spirit, destroy potential prosperity and spawn terror. Allowing failed states to fester isn’t cheap. And now we know: Regime change isn’t cheap either. But if history is any guide, the returns on sending American soldiers to the Middle East will be positive.


Tim Kane is a Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: Information about Heritage’s funding may be found at

This essay is available to Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.