Of the many interesting portions of President Trump’s news conference Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the more confusing came when he complained – for the umpteenth time – that the US has spent $7 trillion in the Middle East since 2001 and then threatened Iran in the same breath.
He uses the figure to argue the US has spent too much money there. The problem is that almost every review suggests Trump is way off-the-mark. The US has not spent anywhere near $7 trillion in the Middle East. Not yet.
For clarity, here’s the full transcript of Trump’s $7 trillion comment with context for each portion:
TRUMP: But if I might add, they – states and, as I alluded to, that in countries that are in the area, some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States and to a lesser extent France. But they wouldn’t be there except for the United States, they wouldn’t last a week.
(Earlier in the news conference he said wealthy nations in the Middle East need to spend more money on the effort to combat ISIS.)
TRUMP: We are protecting them. They have to now step up and pay for what’s happening. Because I don’t think France or the United States should be liable for the tremendous cost. The United States is embarrassingly into the Middle East as of a few months ago, as you’ve heard me say before.
(Trump here acknowledges he’s made the claim he’s about to make before. So he’s doing it on purpose.)
TRUMP: And I don’t take responsibility, but I would be very embarrassed if I had to. $7 trillion, and when we want to build, Mr. President, our infrastructure, everybody says that we want to be careful with our money. When we want to fix a highway or we want to build schools and lots of other things, tunnels, bridges, they say oh, let’s be careful with our money.
(The President of the US sort of has to take responsibility for the country, no? He and former President Barack Obama both said they opposed the war in Iraq, but they still had to deal with it when they took office. It is his responsibility. Second, the argument he’s making is we should be spending the money being spent in the Middle East elsewhere in the US. Many Americans would likely agree. But Trump is not yet following through on his idea to completely pull out of the region.)
TRUMP: And yet we’ve spent $7 trillion in the Middle East and we’ve got nothing for it. Nothing, less than nothing, as far as I’m concerned. That’s over an 18-year period. The countries that are there, that you all know very well, are immensely wealthy.
(Again, what the US has gotten out of its involvement in the Middle East is truly debatable. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh has a really thoughtful essay on this. But if you go back 18 years, it lands you at the 9/11 terror attacks, which led directly to US involvement in Afghanistan and, according to Trump’s current national security adviser, John Bolton, to the Iraq War, too. The larger issue is that his $7 trillion figure – he used to say $6 trillion – is not widely accepted to be true. PolitiFact, The Washington Post and others have questioned its veracity. The Congressional Research Service said the operational costs were less than $2 trillion between 2001 and 2016. It’s much more – $3.6 trillion, according to a Brown University study that lumps in other Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security spending. In order to get to $7 trillion, you have to add future spending, most of which is for veterans over the next 35 years. The point is that $3.6 trillion is A LOT of money. Why not just say that? Or, if you want to say $7 trillion, just say over the coming decades as we care for veterans. No study seems to suggest the US has spent $7 trillion in the Middle East (and Afghanistan) in 18 years.)
TRUMP: They’re going to have to pay for this, and I think the President and I agree very much on that. And they will pay for it. They will pay for it. We’ve spoken to them, they will pay for it. The United States will not continue to pay.
(Trump here is putting Middle East nations on notice that they’ll have to pay more where it comes to Iran and Syria to keep the US in the Middle East.)
And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing. And we will in fact bring lots of people home. We will have a strong blockage to the Mediterranean, which to me is very important. Because if we don’t, you have Iran going right to the Mediterranean, not going to have that.
(Trump here appears to be saying the US could bring the troops it has in the Middle East home.)
TRUMP: But there is a chance, and nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th. Although, Mr. President, you have a pretty good idea. But we’ll see, but we’ll see also if I do what some people expect. Whether or not it will be possible to do a new deal with solid foundations.
(May 12 is the deadline for the US to recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Macron had just floated the idea of a new agreement between Iran and the international community that could also deal with Syria. But it is true that nobody knows what Trump will do, although he has mercilessly criticized the Iran deal and cleansed his immediate staff of its supporters.)
TRUMP: Because this is a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal, it’s a bad structure. It’s falling down. Should’ve never, ever been made. I blame Congress, I blame a lot of people for it. But it should’ve never been made. And we’re going to see what happens on the 12th. But I will say if Iran threatens US in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.
(In the same answer, Trump has put other Middle East countries on notice that they will have to pony up to keep the US involved, and then has put Iran on notice that it should not threaten the US or it will have to pay a price.)