The Economic Consequences of a War with Iraq

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The Economic Consequences of a War with Iraq

William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

October 29, 2002


The drums of war are beating as the United States marches, two steps forward and one step backward, toward war with Iraq. The Congressional Resolution authorizing the use of force describes U.S. policy as “to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”1 The major benefits of a successful war are reckoned to be disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and removing a leadership that is unrelentingly hostile to the United States.

But what of the costs? Even asking such a question may be thought a sign of insufficient resolve at best and appeasement at worst. However, although cost estimates are often ignored when war is debated, most people recognize that the costs in dollars, and especially in blood, are acceptable only as long as they are low. If the casualty estimates mount to the thousands, if the war pushes the economy into deep recession or requires a large tax increase, and if the United States becomes a pariah in the world because of brutal attacks on civilian populations, then decision makers in the White House and the Congress might not post so expeditiously to battle.
Given the salience of cost, it is surprising that there have been no systematic public analyses of the economics of a military conflict in Iraq. This essay attempts to fill the gap. It is recognized that the estimates here are virtually certain to be wrong, for the fog of war extends far beyond the battlefield to include forecasts of political reactions and economic consequences. However, as Keynes said, it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.
While historians have documented the many miscalculations involved in war, little has been written on faulty economic forecasts, but a couple of examples will suffice. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury estimated that the direct cost of the war to the North would be $240 million, which amounted to about 7 percent of annual GDP at that time. The actual cost to the North turned out to be $3,200 million, or about 13 times the original estimated cost.2 The cost to the South was much greater, for most of its capital stock was destroyed and output per worker was depressed for nearly a century. The most prophetic economic analysis of war and peace of all time, Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, did not foresee the great German inflation that was virtually at hand, nor did it contain any hints of the Great Depressions in Britain of the 1920s or of the world of the 1930s.
In more recent times, the costs of the Vietnam War were grossly underestimated when the buildup occurred. The original budget estimate in early 1966 underestimated the cost for the coming fiscal year by $10 billion, or about 1½ percent of GDP. By assuming that the war would end by June 1967, the Pentagon underestimated the cost of the war by around 90 percent. The war in fact dragged on until 1973, and the total direct cost was in the range of $110 to $150 billion.3 The indirect costs were more difficult to gauge but comprise inflation and economic instability, civil unrest, and, some have argued, a growing disenchantment with authority and government in the United States.

The Economic Background in Iraq

It is widely recognized that the United States is an economic and military superpower. The military status of Iraq has been carefully reviewed,4 and I will concentrate on the current economic situation, beginning with Iraq’s major economic asset, oil.

Oil experts believe that Iraq has immense oil resources. The most recent review by the U.S. Energy Information Agency stated in early 2002:
Iraq contains 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the second largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia) along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible resources. Iraq’s true resource potential may be far greater than this, however, as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions. Deep oil-bearing formations located mainly in the vast Western Desert region, for instance, could yield large additional oil resources, but have not been explored.5
Iraq has about 10 percent of the world’s oil proven reserves and resources. Iraq’s oil resources could satisfy current U.S. oil imports for almost a century.
Iraq’s oil production in 2000 and 2001 averaged around 2.5 million barrels per day (mbpd). About 1 mbpd of this came from the northern Kirkuk field located largely in Kurdish Iraq, and the balance was produced largely in the southern, Shiite-majority Rumaila region.
Iraq has frequently attempted to use oil as a weapon against the West, but recently it has held out the “oil carrot” to potential allies. As of early 2002, contracts involving many billions of dollars for increasing capacity have reportedly been negotiated with China, France, and Russia.6 It is probably not coincidental that these three countries have permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. All three countries are probably suspicious of American economic designs on postwar Iraq, particularly given the powerful influence in Republican circles of construction and oil exploration companies like Bechtel and Halliburton.
What is the current state of Iraq’s economy? The regime of Saddam Hussein has been as disastrous for the Iraqi economy as for other aspects of Iraqi society. The state of Iraq’s statistical system, like much of its economy, is in a sad state. None of the major international organizations has provided reliable data on Iraq’s economy for the last decade, but a rough estimate of economic conditions can be obtained on the basis of informal estimates.
In recent decades, Iraq has been heavily dependent upon oil production. During those periods when oil production was not constrained by war or sanctions, Iraq’s oil production peaked at around 3 million barrels per day, or about 1 billion barrels per year. This constituted about half of Iraq’s GDP during the late 1970s. GDP per capita peaked in 1979 at around $9000 in 2002 prices.
The year 1979 also marked Saddam Hussein’s rise to power. Since that time, Iraq has experienced one of the most catastrophic economic declines in modern history. It appears that per capita income was in the range of $1000 - $1200 in 2001. These figures suggest that in the 23 years since Hussein came to power, living standards in Iraq economy have declined by around 90 percent.
The first phase of the economic decline came during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and second during the first Persian Gulf War and under the subsequent UN sanctions. The Iran-Iraq war dealt a devastating blow to the Iraqi economy. The war destroyed a large part of Iraq’s capital stock, reduced oil production and exports, and depleted much of its foreign assets and foreign exchange reserves. Kamran Mofid estimated that the total cost to Iraq was $450 billion (in current dollars), which amounts to about eight years of Iraq’s GDP at that time.7
The First Persian Gulf War (PGW-I) and the ensuing sanctions dealt two more blows to Iraq’s economy. The war destroyed about $230 billion of infrastructure.8 The UN sanctions in place since 1991 have been the most severe ever imposed. Under sanctions, oil production during the 1991-2002 period averaged 1.4 mbpd. Assuming that Iraq could have produced 3.5 mbpd during this period, the revenue shortfall since PGW-I was about $200 billion. Although reliable statistics on Iraqi GDP are unavailable, it probably averaged $25 billion in the 1990s. This suggests that the sanctions reduced Iraq’s oil revenues by approximately eight years’ GDP, and the total cost to the Iraqi economy was probably even larger than that. Overall, the wars and sanctions during the Hussein regime probably cost Iraq in the order of two decades of GDP in lost output, capital, and financial resources. There are no parallels in modern history to economic devastation on that scale.
Economic statistics are too abstract to capture the grim reality on the ground. A recent report captures the impact of economic decline on day-to-day life.
While the accuracy of statistics demonstrating the impact of United Nations sanctions on Iraq cannot be fully determined, there is no question that their impact has been severe. Infant mortality has doubled from the pre-sanctions era, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reporting a fivefold increase in mortality among children under age five. Kwashiorkor and marasmus – symptoms of severe protein deficiency and usually seen only in famines – are increasingly common…. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The vast majority of the country’s population has been on a semi-starvation diet for years.” An FAO Mission to Iraq in the summer of 1997 found that 25 percent of young men and 16 percent of young women show signs of chronic energy deficiency, reflecting the reduced availability of food over the past seven years…. Before sanctions, 93 percent of urban and 70 percent of rural residents had access to potable water. Currently more than half of rural residents do not have access to clean water.9
Estimating the Costs of War
The Costs of Wars Past
Before analyzing the current conflict, it will be useful to review the costs of past major wars. Table 1 shows the size of forces and total fatalities in past wars.

Table 1. American Casualties from Major American Wars
Source: Al Nofi, Statistical Summary: America’s Major Wars at based on Principal Wars in which the US Participated: US Military Personnel Serving and Casualties, Washington Headquarters Services, Directorate for Information Operations and Reports. US Department of Defense Records, Table 2-23. Casualties are limited to U.S. military forces.
Table 2 provides estimates of the direct military costs of major wars. These omit veterans’ benefits and health costs, which are appropriate budgetary items and have sometimes added substantially to costs but difficult to reckon. They also omit interest costs, which are not appropriate economic costs as they reflect decisions about financing rather than costs. Major wars in the past cost more than one-half of a year’s GDP. By contrast, the first Persian Gulf War cost only about 1 percent of GDP.

Table 2. American Costs of Major Wars

Source: U.S. Commerce Department, Historical Statistics of the United States, Government Printing Office, 1975, vol. 2, series Y and Al Nofi, Statistical Summary: America’s Major Wars at . Estimate in 2002 dollars are reflated using the GDP deflator. The costs include only costs to the U.S. federal budget.

Military Scenarios
An assessment of the costs of a war with Iraq is based on scenarios for the conduct of the war, the aftermath of hostilities, the impacts on related markets, and the macroeconomic impacts. It is impossible to project the detailed military strategies. However, we can describe the general contours of a “quick victory” and a “protracted conflict” and attempt to put price tags on each.
The difference between the good and bad cases is unlikely to revolve around the victor, for there is little doubt among military specialists that the United States will prevail if it enters with overwhelming force and perseveres through all obstacles. Rather, the difference 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.
A study prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee10 and studies by private specialists such as Anthony H. Cordesman and Michael E. O’Hanlon11 lay out a plausible starting point for the analysis. Most experts believe that the war would begin with an intensive bombing of Iraqi targets, focusing on command and control sites, leadership headquarters, Scud missiles, CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] weapons sites, communications infrastructure, and elite Republican guard troops.
These studies estimate that the U. S. will need to deploy between 150,000 and 350,000 personnel to achieve overwhelming force – this being approximately half of the troop strength deployed in the First Persian Gulf War. To some extent, the conduct of the war will be limited by decisions on use of territory by Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Specialists provide a wide array of scenarios ranging from heavy reliance on Special Forces to intensive air war to ground invasion. All scenarios end up with some form of capitulation by Iraq, occupation of Baghdad, and destruction or capture of Iraq’s top leadership. Some battle plans have found their way to the newspapers, but it seems more likely that these “leaks” of battle plans are attempts to mislead the enemy than disclosures of sensitive information by disgruntled generals. U.S. strategy is at this point the most closely held of secrets.

The “quick victory” scenario would involve some combination of strategy and luck in which Saddam Hussein and his top leadership were captured or killed, the Iraqi ground forces surrendered quickly, and the presence of U.S. forces prevented civil disorder from breaking out in the south or Kurdish regions. This is the outcome analyzed in the Democratic staff report, which envisions between 30 and 60 days of air war and ground combat, followed by 2½ months of post-victory presence by troops in the theatre. It is hard to see how anything short of preemptive capitulation by the Hussein regime could be less costly than this scenario. U.S. casualties under the quick victory strategy might be similar to those in PGW-I of around 250 fatalities.

When the dust has settled, military analysts will spend many years sifting through the results of the battles. From an economic point of view, the tactical details are unpredictable, but they are also inessential for the economic analysis.
Prolonged Conflict and Nasty Outcomes
The quick victory scenario would resemble the first Persian Gulf War, the Kosovo War, and the Afghanistan war. A “prolonged conflict“ case comes when the dice of war roll unfavorably. Often, as in the case of September 11, problems arise simply because people thought they could not or would not happen. Sometimes, things go wrong because there are no good ways to prevent them. However, the opportunity for miscalculation is unlimited. Anthony Cordesman concludes his review of the battlefield prospects by emphasizing the intrinsic uncertainty:
Anyone who looks seriously at this list of independent variables will

quickly see that it is impossible to predict when and how the United States will use decisive force, the Iraqi response to a U.S.-led coalition, the nature of a U.S.-led coalition, how long Iraq can endure, and what strategy Iraq will actually pursue if it does use its CBRN weapons.12

Analysts point to a wide variety of potential complications and costs that need to be contemplated. These include prolonged conflict and an Iraqi urban redoubt strategy; occupation and peacekeeping costs; reconstruction costs; humanitarian assistance; costs of nation building; impact on oil markets; the cost of buying support from allies; subsequent terrorist acts inside or outside the United States; macroeconomic shocks; spillover to other policies; escalation of war by Israel; contagion of terrorist acts around the world; and the use of weapons of mass destruction. This section outlines some potential adverse military scenarios, and the subsequent sections attempts to put a price tag on them where they involve economic impacts.
Urban defense strategy
A first possibility, viewed as a serious risk by military analysts, involves an urban defense strategy on the part of the Iraqis. PGW-I was a turkey shoot in part because the turkeys were in the open desert. Cordesman described the implications of an urban strategy as follows:13
While much would depend on the loyalty of the population and the army, dispersing and sheltering in towns and cities would make it much harder to use air and missile power effectively. Iraqi fixed facilities would remain highly vulnerable, but Desert Fox, Kovoso, and Afghanistan have all shown that air targeting and weaponry have not reached the point where it is possible to destroy massive amounts of major ground weapons without high collateral damage and civilian casualties. Similarly, forcing the US and its allies to fight urban warfare on a city by city basis means close combat of a kind where many of the technical advantages of US troops have far less effectiveness. It also would mean giving the war a far more negative public profile in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The dangers of an urban redoubt strategy were stated forcefully by retired General Joseph Hoar before the Senate in September 2002:14
The nightmare scenario is that six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions and six heavy divisions reinforced with several thousand antiaircraft artillery pieces defend the city of Baghdad. The result would be high casualties on both sides as well as in the civilian community. U.S. forces would certainly prevail but at what cost and what cost as the rest of the world watches while we bomb and have artillery rounds exploded in densely populated Iraqi neighborhoods…. All our advantages of command and control, technology, mobility, all of those things are in part given up and you are working with corporals and sergeants and young men fighting street to street. It will look like the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
The peril of urban warfare for the United States is that Iraqi forces have better cover, while U.S. precision weapons are not smart enough to separate out troops from civilians or tanks from trucks. O’Hanlon notes that “even after eight years of further modernization after Desert Storm, NATO airpower was of quite limited effectiveness against small groups of Serb forces operating within forests, towns, and civilian populations in the Kosovo war.”15
An urban defense strategy might produce much higher casualties on both sides. Michael O’Hanlon estimates the casualties in an Iraqi war as follows:16
Based on available methodologies, the likely numbers of U.S. military personnel killed in a future war to overthrow Saddam Hussein could plausibly range anywhere from roughly 100, in the event of little fighting, to 5,000, in the event of intense if relatively short urban combat, with total numbers of wounded about three to four times as great either way.
An effective urban-defense strategy by Iraq would prolong the combat, increase casualties, and broaden the destruction of Iraq’s urban areas and infrastructure. Collateral damage and civilian deaths would probably be much greater, and the nightly news (or at least the news in the Arab world) would produce many grizzly pictures. Intensive urban fighting would provoke massive movements of refugees fleeing away from combat zones and toward the protection of American forces. A long and bloody urban conflict would induce hundreds of thousands of protesters, or more, on the streets of America, Europe, and the Muslim world.
Iraqi Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons
A more dangerous possibility is that Iraq might successfully use biological or chemical weapons. The most likely targets would be U.S. troops, Saudi Arabia, or Israel. Cordesman provides a useful summary of the prospects:
In spite of some defector claims, it seems doubtful that Saddam has even one nuclear weapon. The same, however, is probably not true of biological and chemical weapons and a radiological weapon is possible. Iraq may also have enough components to assemble as many as 25 Scuds, has shorter range missiles, can modify drones and combat aircraft to act as “cruise missiles,” and has significant capability to smuggle weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq and deliver them covertly. There is considerable evidence that he may have the capability to make dry, storable biological weapons in aerosol form.17

U.S. forces have protective gear and are immunized against some biological weapons. However, U.S. troops have not experienced germs or gas under combat conditions in modern times, and it is not clear what protective gear will be worn, or by whom, or how effective the gear will be against the threats that are faced. An even larger concern is the casualties and panic that would occur if these weapons were launched on civilian populations in large cities.

Iraqi preemption and wider conflict in the region
Another set of worrisome outcomes would occur if the war spills outside of Iraq. For example, Iraq might preempt the preemptors by attacking the population centers of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or attempting to destroy the oil facilities of other Gulf states. (I discuss the oil issues below.)
Alternatively, the conflict might stoke widespread resentment against the U.S., boiling over into political protests, mob action, adverse policies, or even regime changes outside Iraq. The parade of horribles includes attacks by Russia or China on dissident groups or regions, turmoil in the Indian subcontinent, a takeover of Pakistan by fundamentalists, military conflict between Israel and its neighbors, or terrorist actions by Al Qaeda. The range of outcomes here is so broad as to defy any serious attempt to quantify the impacts.
One particularly dangerous scenario would involve a damaging Iraqi attack on Israel, perhaps with chemical or biological weapons. Israel would probably strike back with great ferocity, leading to a further poisoning of relations between the Israel and the Arab world as well as of U.S.-Arab relations. A most frightening scenario is described by Cordesman: “If Iraq should succeed in delivering extremely lethal biological agents against an Israeli city, Israel would probably massively retaliate with nuclear ground bursts against every Iraqi city not already occupied by U.S.-led coalition forces.”18
These three nasty outcomes – urban warfare, unconventional warfare, and wider escalation – are obvious to both sides. The U.S. has undoubtedly analyzed these scenarios and has plans to prevent, preempt, deter, or overcome them.19 Successfully avoiding a wider war is probably the key to a rapid and relatively bloodless victory.

Publicly Available Estimates of the War’s Costs
What is known about the cost of a war in Iraq? Two conceptual points need to be made before starting the analysis. First, we are attempting to estimate the total costs to the nation, not just the budgetary costs. We are asking how much of our national output will be sacrificed by the war and its consequences – in effect, the loss of butter because of the resort to guns.
Second, these costs should count only the incremental costs of the war. The 82nd Airborne Division has to be paid whether it is in Iraq or North Carolina. Only additional costs such as the cost of transport, the combat pay, and the replacement cost of the munitions should be counted in the cost of the war. The implication of this conceptual point is that the cost of a short war is likely to be surprisingly small because most of the costs are already paid for in the defense budget.

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