Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, 'The Three Trillion Dollar War'; Geoff Simons, 'Iraq Endgame?'; Greg Palast, 'Armed Madhouse'

IssueJune 2008
Review by Alan Gray

The Three Trillion Dollar War is exhaustive analysis of the true cost of the war in Iraq. The headline figure – $3 trillion – is an unthinkable amount of money. Half of it, for example, would cover the cost of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals – which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015.

But, Stiglitz and Bilmes point out, $3 trillion is a conservative estimate of the cost of the war to the US alone. Worldwide a minimum cost would be double that. They speak with considerable authority – he is a Nobel Prize winning economist, she a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard – and the bulk of the book gives their reasoning and figures.

Despite the economic subject matter the book is written for the general reader and is thankfully free of jargon or technical terms. While most of the content is, inevitably, US-based, there is a section dealing with the cost of the war to the UK – a minimum £20 billion – and the section on worldwide economic effects is useful to those of us wanting good information to back our general arguments against the war.

Covering events on the ground in Iraq, and related political events in the US and UK, during 2007, Iraq Endgame is packed with facts, is extremely well referenced, and has a good index. The sections are well structured and Geoff Simons is a writer who can condense a mass of fact clearly.

However, to convince people it isn’t enough simply to catalogue the horrors. Activists also need to be able to put them in context for people: to explain what brought them about, how the situation is developing, and what the likely outcomes are.

Here the book is significantly weaker. When Simons turns to the causes of the war his main emphasis is on the individual character of Bush and Blair: “one was an ignoramus and the other a self-delusionist.” True or not, this is simply inadequate as a basis for explaining complex historical events such as the Iraq war.

For analysis it’s better to turn to Palast’s Armed Madhouse. Although not centred solely on Iraq – it also covers how the Republicans plan to steal the next election – a substantial slice of the book looks at the causes of the war and its development.

A key area is his description of the US conduct of the war in terms of the tensions within the Bush administration itself. There was general agreement on launching the war, but none about what happened afterwards.

On one hand, Powell’s State Department, supported by the oil companies, wanted to get in, overthrow Saddam, and get straight back out. On the other the neo-cons at Defence, headed by Rumsfeld, wanted an occupation which would enable them to remake Iraq as a free market paradise. Many of the seemingly contradictory US policies in Iraq, he argues, stem from the tussle that this created.

This analysis, centred on institutional structures and their economic underpinnings, is simply fuller than Simons’s concentration on the psychological flaws of Bush and Blair. Buy Iraq Endgame by all means if you want a well researched reference book, but if you want an overview go for the Palast.

Topics: Iraq
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