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Splitting the Check: When Allies Helped Pay for Middle East War

Image: A F/A-18C Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-15) makes landing approach on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in the Gulf

A F/A-18E Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-31) comes in to land onboard the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in the Gulf August 12. Planes have been taking off from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN77) to strike key positions taken over by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq. U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized air strikes to confront the Islamist fighters in various cities of Iraq. HAMAD I MOHAMMED / Reuters

Wars are always expensive. But it helps to split the tab.

As President Barack Obama works to build an international coalition of allies to fight the militant group, the cost of what’s likely to be a lengthy and expensive military campaign looms large – particularly after Americans shoveled well more than a trillion dollars into military operations since the 9/11 attacks. Yet it’s still unclear how big the price tag could be -- or the extent to which America’s allies are willing to spend for another foray into Middle East turmoil.

And there's only one precedent in the past quarter century for an international split check -- as pointed out by former Secretary of State James Baker during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“We got other people to pay for the war,” Baker said of the successful campaign to chase Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991.

Baker on Mideast 1991 vs. 2014 1:15

Those “other people” included Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Japan. Together, allies outside the United States covered more than 80 percent of the war’s cost, estimated by the Department of Defense to be $61.1 billion – about $107 billion in today’s dollars.

Under an agreement brokered by Baker, oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf took on most of the cost of the effort. But most of the nearly 700,000 troops involved in the six week conflict came from the United States, with 383 Americans losing their lives.

According to Pentagon calculations, the United States spent $7.3 billion on the Gulf War effort (about $13 billion, after adjusting for inflation). That’s just about 12 percent of the costs of the operation.

The lion’s share came from Kuwait, which pitched in $16 billion at the time (26 percent), and Saudi Arabia, which contributed $16.8 billion (27 percent).

Japan chipped in $10 billion (16 percent); Germany, $6.4 billion (10 percent); United Arab Emirates, $4 billion (6.5 percent); and South Korea, $251 million (0.5 percent).

Now, nearly 40 nations have agreed to contribute in some way to the global fight against ISIS, but the specifics are still very unclear.

US launches strikes against ISIS 2:00

Help from abroad could also come in a variety of ways, from providing troops, money or humanitarian aid to coordinating on training, military basing and intelligence efforts. But in a region so often defined by chaos, mistrust and political baggage are sure to make securing specific commitments diplomatically tricky.

The Obama administration wants Congress to vote to authorize U.S. efforts to train moderate Syrian rebels by the end of this month – and has asked for $500 million to fund that effort. Congress is expected to vote on the legal authorization but not on the funds, although lawmakers have made clear that the cash for the training effort is available through existing channels.