CNN Fact Check: Comparing costs of Iraq, Libya missions

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Story highlights

  • President Obama says Libya operation cost less than two weeks of war in Iraq
  • CRS: In 2008, Pentagon's obligations in Iraq reached average of $5.12 billion every two weeks
  • Pentagon, CRS say cost of U.S. portion of 2011 military operation in Libya was more than $1.6 billion

President Barack Obama asserted during Monday's presidential debate that it cost the United States less to help oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi than it did to run two weeks of the 2003-2011 war in Iraq

Obama, debating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, made the comment while touting his decision to involve the United States in a NATO no-fly-zone operation that helped rebels overthrow Gadhafi over seven months in 2011.

The statement: Obama: "Keep in mind that I, and Americans, took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to -- without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq -- liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years.

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The facts: We can attempt a comparison by examining the Defense Department's spending on the two operations.

The war in Iraq cost the Defense Department tens of billions of dollars a year, reaching a peak in fiscal 2008, when the department's Iraq obligations reached a monthly average of $11.1 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. That year covered a good portion of the 2007-2008 U.S. troop surge.

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Obama mentioned the cost at the two-week level. In fiscal 2004 -- the first full fiscal year of the war -- the department's Iraq obligations averaged $2.21 billion every two weeks, according to the CRS. That average rose every year through fiscal 2008, when the average two-week obligation was $5.12 billion.

Those are obligations -- basically the amount needed to be paid, and not the actual amount paid to date. We give you the obligations because the CRS says the Pentagon didn't track actual outlays until fiscal 2009. But, the CRS's report says that "average obligations for a fiscal year are a good indicator of ongoing operational costs."

By fiscal 2011, which ended shortly before all U.S. troops were out of the country, the Pentagon's spending had fallen to an average of $2.8 billion every two weeks, according to data from the CRS.

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The rate of U.S. military spending on the 2011 operation in Libya was significantly less. The multi-country operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya began on March 19, 2011, with U.S. aircraft and ships helping to disable Libya's air defense network and airfields.

The most expensive phase in Libya for the Pentagon appears to have been in March. The cost of initial operations through March 28, 2011, was estimated at $550 million, according to the CRS.

By April, Libya's air defenses were rendered pretty much useless, so the daily expense of the operation declined precipitously. NATO took over the operation in April and maintained leadership through the day of Gadhafi's death in October 2011. The Pentagon said its cost from April 1 through September 30 was about $1.1 billion. That included daily military operations, munitions, the drawdown of supplies and humanitarian assistance.

Adding the two figures, you get about $1.65 billion. Vice President Joe Biden told CNN in October 2011 that the operation "cost us $2 billion." It's not clear whether he was referring to only Pentagon expenditures.

Conclusion: Comparing only Pentagon expenditures, two weeks of military operations in Iraq generally appear to have been more expensive than the U.S. military role in the seven-month Libya operation.

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