Seventeen years ago, a group of neoconservatives surrounding President George W. Bush persuaded him to mount a quick invasion of Iraq because, they alleged, it had “weapons of mass destruction.” That decision, based on dubious intelligence and taken against the advice of many of America’s closest allies, triggered a refugee crisis, destabilized the entire Middle East, and left the United States with a bill of nearly $6 trillion. Nearly 7,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more than 600,000 US troops injured and due to receive lifetime disability compensation.
Despite the staggering costs, many of which continue to accumulate, some hawks are again urging the United States to enter into a preemptive conflict — this time with Iran. Once again, the advocates of war are promising it will be effective, efficient, and short. Make no mistake: A war with Iran to promote regime change or anything else would be long, costly, and catastrophic for the United States and the global economy.
If Iraq and Afghanistan taught us anything, it is that war alone cannot bring regime change. Attempting it in Iran would require hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground, far more than in Afghanistan and Iraq — with a huge human toll in military lives and more injured and disabled veterans. Any attack will also harm Iranian civilians and start yet another massive flow of refugees. US action would strengthen the most virulently anti-American elements of Iranian society and suppress those who favor détente.
War with Iran would entail vast economic, budgetary, and environmental costs. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it, “If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe.” The American Federation of Scientists estimated that even limited US military action against Iran would cost $60 billion to $2 trillion — in the first three months alone.
The impact on the price of oil would be staggering. The invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise in oil prices from $23 per barrel in 2003 to $140 per barrel in the summer of 2008. Going to war with Iran would almost certainly disrupt transit of crude oil shipments and could push oil prices to spike as high as $250 per barrel, according to industry experts.
The American public has not yet felt the impact of the staggering costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In sharp contrast to previous conflicts, the federal government did not raise taxes to help cover the costs but instead borrowed all the money on the national “credit card.” The absence of war taxes made the wars appear free, effectively killing public debate over whether we should continue to fight. Consequently, our national debt is at its highest level since World War II, and we have bequeathed trillions of dollars in debt to the millennial generation. The burden of paying off the debt will fall especially hard on low- and middle-income households, who pay the largest share of their income in taxes, furthering exacerbating income inequality.
Congressional checks on the cost of war has largely been nonexistent for the past 17 years. Nearly all the money to pay for the wars has been allocated using gimmicks that circumvent the regular congressional budget process and are exempt from pay-as-you-go rules. Congress has held far fewer hearings on war costs for Iraq and Afghanistan than during Vietnam and Korea.
Even if we could borrow all the money for a war in Iran — which might be difficult in the face of rising government debt and unstable international capital markets — this time around the US economy is already at full employment. In this economy, a radical increase in military spending is likely to produce inflation, making it even more difficult to rebuild our crumbling domestic infrastructure.
Yet another cost of a war with Iran is the acceleration of climate change. The US military is already the world’s single largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses, releasing 77-80 percent of all US government greenhouse gas emissions since 2001. Military fuel consumption will surge in any mobilization and war with Iran. Damage to the Iranian oil infrastructure could put millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, as was the case in the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the most recent war against ISIS.
Congress endorsed a rush to war against Iraq and Afghanistan based on rosy assumptions, false promises and, in the case of Iraq, faulty intelligence. Seventeen years of congressional silence on the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan has emboldened the hawks in the Trump administration. They now overlook the potential costs and argue that they do not need congressional authorization for military action against Iran.
We must not repeat the last mistake. Congress needs to take back control. It must deliberate and decide if a nuclear agreement with Iran is worth salvaging and if war is really the most effective tool for achieving our political goals. One thing should be clear to all Americans: Any war will be expensive, and the economic risks are extremely high.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that President George W. Bush was pursuaded to “mount a quick invasion of Iraq in order to prevent it from acquiring ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ ” In fact, the Bush administration alleged that Iraq already had weapons of mass destruction.
Linda J. Bilmes is a lecturer at Harvard University and coauthor of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” Neta C. Crawford is professor of political science and department chair at Boston University and codirector of costsofwar.org. Rosella Cappella Zielinski is an assistant professor of political science at Boston University and author of “How States Pay for Wars.”