Does 'Barely True' Mean True?

I've been truth-checked. The St. Petersburg Times fact-checked my piece on the cost of the Iraq War. Actually, it fact-checked Mark Tapscott's quote in the Washington Examiner based on my article.

"Obama's stimulus, passed in his first month in office, will cost more than the entire Iraq War." The bottom-line on the Times' Fact-O-Meter? "Barely True."

Considering the source, that's pretty good. "Barely true" is still true. But I think the Times actually bolstered my case. Let me review the scoring.

First, the numbers I used came straight from a Congressional Budget Office report. The totals were $709B for the Iraq War and $814B for the stimulus. So far, so good: stimulus ahead.

But the Times noted that the war numbers were for 2003-2010, and the stimulus numbers were for 2009-2019 -- inflation must be accounted for. The Times did that accounting and adjusted the numbers to $756B to $820B. So far, the stimulus is still ahead.

Then the Times noted that the comparison assumes the Iraq War ends this year. The Times did not like that assumption. I guess that all depends on what you mean by "war" and "ends."  Here is what our president said about that just this month.

As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. (Applause.) Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America's combat mission in Iraq would end. (Applause.) And that is exactly what we are doing -- as promised and on schedule. (Applause.)

So maybe "war" can be something other than a "combat mission." (If troop presence is the criterion, we must still be at war in Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. In 2005, or more than half a century after both World War II and the Korean conflict, we had 66,418 U.S. troops in Germany, 11,841 in Italy, 35,571 in Japan and 30,983 in South Korea. More U.S. troops are deployed in Germany right now than in Iraq.)

Despite President Obama bringing the "combat mission" to a "responsible end" and making a major speech on August 31 to mark the occasion, let's grant the Times its point anyway: the "Iraq War" does not end August 31, 2010. The Times provided figures for probable war spending from here out: $43.4B in 2011 and $5B to $10B in 2012. Add the higher number to our previous totals and the score becomes $809.4B to $820B -- stimulus still ahead.

Well whaddya know? Account for inflation and add the costs of the Iraq War through its planned end, and you still get that the stimulus cost more than the "entire Iraq War."

That is what the Times calls "barely true."

The Times noted that the "cost" of the stimulus included some tax cuts -- mainly an adjustment to the Alternative Minimum Tax. The Times put that figure at $70B. If we refuse to count a tax cut as a "cost," then the stimulus will cost $750B, not $820B, per the Times. While that is more than the unadjusted war cost of $709B, it is less than the Times' adjusted cost of $809.4B.

So with the inflation adjustments, extending the Iraq War through 2012, and not counting a tax cut as a "cost," we find that the stimulus costs only 93% as much as the "entire Iraq War." In short, with a bunch of assumptions and adjustments, you can get the numbers to show that the war and the stimulus cost about the same.

If that is the message the White House and the Democrats want to trumpet, I'll contribute to their advertising campaign.

Now, it is true that all the above numbers apply only to concurrent spending, and only to federal government spending (including not only military operations, but also diplomatic operations, foreign aid, support of indigenous Iraqi forces, etc.). Iraq War spending was counted only through 2010 or 2012. Stimulus spending was counted only through 2019.

What if "indirect" costs and future costs are included? That is what Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimated. Their answer was an Iraq War cost of $3 trillion. But I have a few questions about that.

  • (1) How accurate can any such estimate be? Counting dollars already allocated by the federal government is a moderately difficult accounting exercise. Counting future and indirect costs requires models, assumptions, and outright speculation. It becomes a metaphysics exercise based more on faith than fact.
  • (2) How accurate is this specific estimate? Are the indirect and future costs really triple the actual costs of an ongoing war, with up to 170,000 troops deployed?
  • (3) Would Joseph Stiglitz try to bias his estimate to the high side? He was President Clinton's chief of the Council of Economic Advisors. He served on the international climate change panel. He argued for a "third way" and against "unfettered markets." In short, he has a liberal agenda. Yes, he won a Nobel Prize, but so did Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Yasser Arafat.
  • (4) What are the indirect and future costs of Obama's stimulus? We can only compare apples to apples.
  • (5) Is the $3 trillion figure a discounted present value, or simply the sum of all costs through infinity in then-year dollars? It is not directly comparable to any other number.

In my article, I compared apples to apples.  To recall some highlights,

  • Stimulus spending in just its first two years, 2009 and 2010, was more than all federal government spending on the Iraq War in all six years under President Bush -- $572B to $554B. Even adjusting for inflation would make the stimulus spending rate roughly triple the Iraq War spending rate.
  • Spending on the Iraq War, 2003 through 2010, was 3.2% of all federal spending in those same years.
  • The federal government spent less on the Iraq War than it did on education over 2003-2008. (And federal spending is less than 10% of all spending on public education.)
  • Iraq War spending through 2010 accounts for about 15% of all deficit spending over 2003-2010, and maybe 8% of all outstanding federal debt held by the public in 2010.

Those statements are true regardless of indirect and future costs.

The bottom line is that the Iraq War was not an economic tsunami. It was not the cause of our financial problems or our debt problem. It affected the economy about the same way the flap of a seagull's wings changes the course of the weather forever. In short, it is a red herring and another resort to "blame Bush."

If you want to estimate all costs, direct and indirect, past, present and future, of all things that followed from the decision to go into Iraq in 2003, be my guest. But if you do, will you also estimate all such costs for the Obama stimulus? And ObamaCare? And all other such spending inside and outside of government over the same years and using the same ground rules?

Because if you don't, your answer is meaningless. One number is meaningless until it is compared to another number, using all the same rules of counting for both numbers. Anything else is specious sophistry.

The statement that the stimulus cost more than the Iraq War stands.  And it is true.

Randall Hoven is the creator of Graph of the Day. He can be contacted at or via his website,