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The (Opportunity) Costs of ANOTHER War with Iraq

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Last week, I asked, “Did we consider the opportunity costs of the first Iraq War?” The answer was, “No.”

But I limited myself to only considering the opportunity costs of spending our “war capital”, the vague combination of American morale/enthusiasm for war. When we go to war we also spend real financial capital. War costs money. And that money has opportunity costs of its own.

The worst part of over-hyping of the ISIS threat is that it will lead America into another war without questioning the costs or considering these opportunity costs. According to some estimates, a new Iraq war could cost billions (with a B). (It’s already cost at least a billion dollars.)

How did it get so high? Well, every aircraft carrier costs millions to operate in a war posture. Every deployed soldier costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every contractor costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every cruise missile costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every plane in the sky requires extra maintenance. This totals out to nearly $300,000 for every hour were at war with ISIS.

And America might spend billions more to defeat ISIS. As I referenced last week, fiscally conservative Republicans suddenly become drunken soldiers at the strip club when it comes to fighting wars. So we need to have a conversation about opportunity costs. Here are my biggest candidates for how America could have spent a billion dollars instead of fighting ISIS.

Finally, a caveat: I only wanted to think about foreign policy spending, because frankly, we’d be here all day if we wrote about ways military spending could be converted into domestic spending. (Vaccinations, infrastructure, and so on.)

Paying Down the Debt

Somehow, when it comes to federal spending, wars and military spending don’t seem to count. Famously, the first war in Iraq was the first time America went to war and lowered taxes instead of raising them. As Eric C wrote in his comment on last Monday’s post, in 2008, whenever Republicans accused Democrats of raising the debt with proposed stimulus programs, all he could think about was constantly increasing defense spending, intelligence spending increases after 9/11, and the ginormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without a dime raised in taxes to cover these costs.

An opportunity cost of the first Iraq war, in monetary terms, was not saving money for stimulus in case the economy crashed. Which happened five years after the first war started.

How much have the post 9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries cost so far? At least $1.5 trillion, according to James Fallows. According to Linda J. Bilmes, the price tag could reach up to $4 to 6 trillion, factoring in associated military costs and veteran's benefits.

But we shouldn’t live in the past. Let’s look to the future. And the very simple calculation every politician should make is whether it is more important for America to pay down its debt (now and in the future) or to fight another war in the Middle East. Maybe the current billion dollar price tag won’t break the bank, but it would help.

Leading the World in the Sustainable Development Goals

Later this year, the U.N. will replace the Millenium Development Goals--that were moderately successful--with the Sustainable Development Goals. The U.S. could really cement its leadership of the world by vowing to spend 1.0% of its GDP on foreign aid and development. (The current global target is 0.7% of GDP.) The U.S. currently spends 0.19% of its GDP on foreign aid. (Despite the perception that the US spends 25 to 30% of the federal budget on foreign aid, it spends about 2%.) We could even do it with business friendly tactics like direct aid, small business loans, and venture capital support. But the U.S. would rather spend a billion dollars on war funding than getting people out of poverty.

Or Leading the World on Climate Change

If you’ve been reading/following any of the Economist’s year ahead coverage, you know that later this year the world’s leaders are meeting in Paris for a summit on climate change. While the U.S. and China have taken a step on the path to confronting climate change by agreeing to terms, the U.S. could do even more by helping developing countries confront climate change. Financially, developing countries face a tougher burden developing green energy; strategically, this is the best way to stop carbon pollution.

Again, this would require hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, and it would require the Senate to ratify a treaty (more on that next week), but it is a real option. And it is possibly much more dangerous than ISIS.

Fighting Ebola

Finally, let’s close with a way we could have really helped people last year. What if I told you that Ebola could have been stopped before it became an epidemic. You would probably say, “Well, yeah, I read about that in the The New York Times, how poor communication led to an epidemic.”

And you’d be right.

Frankly, America has some of the best health care professionals in the world. If we had an extra billion dollars to spend on helping people abroad, I wish we’d spent much more, much sooner in Africa. Perhaps we could have tracked the spread of the disease more effectively, preventing the tragic lack of communication that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. We would have actually saved lives, built up good will, and come across as a nation interested in helping people.

Now that sounds like a smart way to spend money.

four comments

Some readers haven’t been fans of this series. But the next logical option to not going to war is not spending the money, then subtracting the cost of not addressing the threat. As far as Saddam goes, I think that would have been very low. But not increasing the debt? That is the next logical option.

Going on this, I love this series and here’s why: we don’t have this conversation about military spending.

Stimulus to help the economy? Everyone talks about its impact on the debt. For God’s sake, it became one of the main talking points of the 2010 election.

We have a post way down the line on how critics of President Obama want him to be “a leader” in the world. If he did make us a leader in either the UN sustainable Development Goals or Climate Change, he would do more for American leadership than fighting any war, but conservatives would hate him. Ironic.

“Every cruise missile costs tens of thousands of dollars.”

No way. 250 grand minimum for the small, fighter-launched ones (more regularly 500+ grand for that).

“Tomahawk Cruise Missile
Unit Cost: Approximately $569,000 (FY99 $).”

“(…) vowing to spend 1.0% of its GDP on foreign aid and development (…)”
I doubt this would make sense. Apart from too great domestic opposition, foreign aid isn’t really something that helps countries much.
An end to support for bad governments, modifications in intellectual property laws and treaties, an end to subsidies for import-substituting agricultural products et cetera would help much more.
Domestic self-interests and the appetite for great power gaming oppose such moves, though.

To broaden the scope, France has just announced it will spend an additional 425M Euros over the next 3 years on security-related improvements. Certainly the recent attacks were emotional, but as has been often repeated, the number of deaths from terror-related incidents are tiny when set against the whole population. Imagine what an extra 425M Euros could do to improve cleaning procedures in hospitals (to fight hospital-acquired infections) or re-engineer the most dangerous segments of highway or intersections, either of which would probably save more than 20 lives per year. Or, if the threat is fundamentalist Islam, better integrate the Islamic population into France so they don’t feel like foreigners in their own country.

It seems Americans have no monopoly on throwing philosophy to the wind when it comes to spending on security.