OPINION: The Cost of War

September 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm Leave a comment

Food for Thought

U.S. Navy photo

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks draws near, we thought we’d run this opinion piece by veteran budget watcher Winslow Wheeler as a guest posting. Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at Washington’s Center for Defense Information, has been a longtime critic of the Pentagon’s spending practices.

A former Senate staffer for both Democrats and Republicans, Wheeler doesn’t mince words about what he thinks is wrong, but unlike so many others who rail against government spending policy, he knows what he’s talking about.

From 1971 to 2002, Wheeler worked on national security issues for members of the U.S. Senate and for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — the auditing branch of Congress. Wheeler advised Sens. Jacob Javits (New York), Nancy Kassebaum (Kansas) and Pete Domenici (New Mexico) — all Republicans — as well as Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat.

At GAO, he directed comprehensive studies on the 1991 Gulf War air campaign, Pentagon weapons testing and the U.S. strategic nuclear triad (maintaining of arsenal of nuclear armed missiles, bombers and submarines). Each of the studies, Wheeler says, found prevailing conventional wisdom about weapons “to be badly misinformed.” The author of two books on military spending and acquisition programs, Wheeler recently edited The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

Please let us know in the comments box below or via email (4GWARBlog@gmail.com) what you think about Wheeler’s piece and whether we should run other opinion pieces — clearly labled as such — in the future.

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What Has Been the Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars?

This week, as the media runs its displays on America ten years after the 9/11 attacks, there will be references to the dollar costs. A figure some will use is the one trillion dollars President Obama cited as for the war in Iraq.

That figure is a gross underestimate.

The war in Iraq and its costs are inseparable from the wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and elsewhere. Indeed, when the Defense Department seeks appropriations for them, it does not distinguish the costs by location; nor does Congress in appropriations bills.

Moreover, the DoD costs are hardly the whole story: add costs in the State Department budget for aid to the governments (such as they are) of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Add also the costs to care for the U.S. veterans of these wars. That would include the care already extended and the care now obligated for the duration of these men’s and women’s lives.

Add to that the expanded costs of domestic security against terrorism.

Add also the interest we annually pay for the deficit spending that has financed the wars.

In short, if all the wars were to end today without a single penny appropriated for military operations, etc. for the upcoming fiscal year (2012), the federal costs already incurred would be from $3.2 to $3.9 trillion. If the wars were to run their course — as currently (and optimistically) estimate by the Congressional Budget Office — the costs (together with additional interest payments for the required deficit spending out to the year 2020) would come to an additional $1.45 trillion.

All that would make a total cost from $4.7 to $5.4 trillion — assuming everything in the future goes according to plan.See a breakout of these costs in the summary table of Brown University’s Costs of War study. Find that table at http://costsofwar.org/article/economic-cost-summary and find there links to the detailed analyses.

In sum, the costs to be incurred are very roughly five times the $1 trillion President Obama has articulated. Breaking down some of these costs is also instructive.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has assiduously tracked appropriations for DoD (and State Department) expenses for the wars. For the period up to the end of this month (after ten years of wars), CRS records the DoD appropriations for the wars to be $1.2 trillion. (Find the latest CRS study on this at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.) However, this amount does not include an additional $600+ billion that was added to DoD’s “base” (non-war) budget as a result of the wars and the politics surrounding them. In short, the direct and indirect DoD costs for the wars up to the end of this month are $1.9 trillion (in 2011 dollars), not $1.2 trillion. I performed this analysis of the DoD budget for Brown’s Costs of War study; find my analysis — and an explanation of the $1.9 trillion total — at http://costsofwar.org/article/pentagon-budget. If you think that the DoD spending for the wars has been prudently spent, or even accurately calibrated, I urge you to read this paper.

Linda Bilmes of Harvard University performed an analysis of the up to $1.4 trillion cost for veterans and their families; find her analysis at http://costsofwar.org/article/caring-us-veterans.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not one of Brown University’s Costs of War analysts, but he has written incisively about both the federal and the broader economic costs of the wars. Find a summary of his analysis (and links to other useful broader economic analysis of the wars) a http://www.slate.com/id/2302949/?wpisrc=obinsite.

There are, of course, other human and moral costs that the Costs of War Study addresses and that others have addressed as well. As the American media cranks it out for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it will eagerly prompt the emotions of the original event. Thinking and reacting that way is precisely how we ended up spending something in excess of $5 trillion and achieved a result that is the solid basis for only an argument — and very little more.

 – Winslow T. Wheeler

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Entry filed under: Afghanistan, Counter Insurgency, Iraq, National Security and Defense, Pakistan, Washington, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: .

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