Leading article: Payback time for the White House

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The Independent Online

Interviewed by the BBC yesterday, the US Treasury Secretary, John Snow, was insouciant when asked about the mounting cost of the Iraq war. The bill, he suggested, would not come near denting an economy as robust as that of the United States. Indeed, all his answers in this wide-ranging interview were bullish in the extreme. Whether on the yawning US trade deficit, the negative savings rate of US citizens or the prospects for the dollar, Mr Snow was all sunny optimism and confidence. If awkward figures lurked around the corner, Mr Snow wearily professed not to know.

Were his ignorance deliberate, this would hardly be the first time that the memory of a Cabinet minister or his equivalent had been selective. It would merely confirm that Mr Snow is more of a politician than his loose-lipped predecessor, Paul O'Neill. If, on the other hand, Mr Snow did not know or accept the costings published this week by the Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, a rude shock may just be winging his way. Two trillion dollars, his upper estimate, is still $2 trillion (£1.13 trillion), even for the richest country in the world.

It is true that this headline figure contains many projections - such as the continuing care and pension costs for wounded servicemen, the loss to the civilian economy from the call-up of reservists and the rise in oil prices -which is not commonly included in the cost of the war. It is also true that Joseph Stiglitz and his co-author, Linda Bilmes of Harvard, are outspoken critics of the Bush administration. Neither caveat, however, invalidates their calculations.

Even their most conservative figure - $1 trillion - is still many, many times higher than the "too-high" estimate of $200bn that cost Lawrence Lindsey his job as President Bush's economic adviser. And while $1 trillion may not actually dent the US economy, it is a loss that inevitably limits the money available for other purposes and could prompt difficult questions in Congress. Was it entirely coincidental that the White House recently made known that it would seek no new funds for reconstruction in Iraq?

Mid-term congressional elections take place this November, and in an election year any financial cost automatically becomes political. All the early signs are Mr Bush and his strategists hope to make the resilience of the US economy the Republicans' campaign theme. The Vice President, Dick Cheney, somewhat surprisingly, made his first speech of the year a paean to the economy. If the Democrats were somehow able to link the war and economic concerns in voters' minds, however, this Republican strategy could backfire. The Stiglitz analysis shows how much of a risk it could be.