The Heavy Price of America’s Going It Alone

August 6, 2003

American troops fought the Iraq war with support only from Britain and a handful of other allies. In the postwar effort, the US continues to provide about 90 per cent of all the requisite military personnel. Given India’s recent rejection of the request to deploy 17,000 of its soldiers to Iraq, as well as the continued reluctance to participate of military middle-weights such as France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, US troops will probably continue to supply some 80 per cent of all forces by the autumn.

Distressingly, things are as bad on civilian reconstruction, where the American taxpayer seems likely to foot most of the bill that Iraq’s oil revenues cannot cover. Perhaps it was inevitable that the US would shoulder most of the costs in blood and treasure to depose Saddam Hussein and restore to the Iraqi people their country and their future. But the passing of United Nations Security Council resolution 1441 last November, which demanded that Mr Hussein demonstrate he had disarmed himself or be disarmed, held out the hope that many countries could be persuaded to play their part, however reluctantly, in holding him to account. Instead, after a multilateral autumn, the Bush administration spent a unilateral winter. America continues to face the consequences nearly four months after the fall of Baghdad.

What are the costs to the US of going it alone? The strategic costs will be hotly debated for years. But even if the strategic costs are ultimately mitigated by the efforts of US and other troops on the ground, by the US-led civil administration, and by the Iraqis, there will remain a financial cost to unilateralism. It can be calculated, at least in rough terms. And it is large.

According to the Pentagon, the cost of the war in Iraq so far has been more than Dollars 48bn (Pounds 30bn). General Tommy Franks has estimated the US military occupation of Iraq could continue for two to four years. Outside experts suggest four years as a minimum, drawing from US reconstruction experience in the Balkans and elsewhere and based on Iraq’s deficit in trained security personnel. Troop totals and the associated monthly costs will eventually decline from the current Dollars 3.9bn a month but could still be Dollars 3bn a month for the next four years, if not longer. That translates into a total military cost of at least Dollars 150bn by mid-2007, not even counting the costs of war.

On reconstruction costs, the administration has not yet submitted a new request to Congress; but by the end of this year it is likely to have depleted the Dollars 3.6bn Congress has so far made available. With Iraqi oil revenues unlikely to reach full potential soon, outside estimates of the US bill for reconstruction range from Dollars 5bn to Dollars 120bn a year over several years. That puts the total cost to the US at between Dollars 150bn and Dollars 300bn.

Had President George W. Bush gained the support of important US allies—if not for waging war, at least for securing the peace—the burden could have been far smaller. It is hard to second-guess history but the fact that the French military was still developing plans to contribute 25,000 soldiers to a war effort as late as last Christmas makes it tempting to do so.

Consider the recent past. When President George H.W. Bush went to war in the Gulf in 1991, the broad multilateral coalition he painstakingly assembled bankrolled more than 80 per cent of the costs. In Kosovo, President Bill Clinton’s determined courting of allies led to a burden-sharing agreement that left the US shouldering only 15 per cent of reconstruction and a similarly low share of peacekeeping costs.

Let us assume the US were to shoulder half of the military burden, albeit within a broad coalition—roughly its share of total military costs in Afghanistan. Even by this lower estimate, the extra cost of unilateralism could be very roughly Dollars 100bn. In other words, America would have saved that much money by finding a strategy that elicited broader support. Thus, unilateralism has a price: about Dollars 1,000 for each American household. Of course, these are only the direct financial costs of the Bush administration’s decision to go it alone, notwithstanding Britain’s contribution.

Iraq is just the starkest example of unilateralism costing America dear. US leadership through most of the past half-century in building international institutions and rules has not been based on sentimental idealism, as some critics contend, but rather on hard-headed analysis of American interests.