The Unaffordability of Endless War

Transforming distant nations is a costly luxury.


It's a shame to let accountants spoil the charming romance of war, but sometimes they insist. Recently the Congressional Research Service reported that our military undertakings in Iraq and Afghanistan have marked an important milestone. Together, they have cost more than a trillion dollars.

That doesn't sound like much in the age of TARP, ObamaCare, and LeBron James, but it is. Adjusted for inflation, we have spent more on Iraq and Afghanistan than on any war in our history except World War II. They have cost more in real dollars than the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.

But we can only wish we were getting off so lightly. Neither war is over, and neither is going to be soon. The House just approved $37 billion in extra funding to cover this year, and the administration wants another $159 billion for 2011. That won't be the final request.

Worse, the CRS figure is only part of the bill so far. It noted the sum doesn't include the "costs of veterans' benefits, interest on war-related debt, or assistance to allies." All of those will go on after these wars are over, which someday they may be.

Scholars Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia and Linda Bilmes of Harvard published a book in 2008 called The Three Trillion Dollar War, which gives a more realistic estimate. But that, too, is an understatement. They figure that when all long-run costs are factored in, the tab will be at least $5 trillion and could reach $7 trillion, or nearly twice as much as this year's entire federal budget.

And that was two years ago. I asked Bilmes for an update, and she said some obligations, like veterans' medical and disability compensation costs, "have exceeded our earlier projections." Do I hear $8 trillion?

The beauty of the current conflicts, however, is that we can pretend we don't have to pay for them. Unlike past wars, when taxes were raised to defray the cost, these have been financed with the help of borrowed funds. But eventually the astronomical bill will have to be paid.

A nation as wealthy as this one might be able to afford to go on taking out loans to squander on martial adventures if that were all we wanted our government to do. But if we expect it to pay us a decent Social Security pension, cover our medical expenses in our old age (and sometimes before), combat crime and terrorism, build and repair highways and bridges, maintain national parks, and all the rest—well, invading and transforming distant nations might just become an unaffordable luxury.

This looming constraint may be a good thing. It should force us to reassess an approach to foreign relations and national security that has not been a thunderous success.

Afghanistan seemed simple and painless at the outset. But our mission has been going on for nearly nine years, and the object of our solicitude remains a poor, violent, corruption-riddled country that gives anarchy a bad name. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said this week that the U.S. and its allies are "in the process of losing the war against the Taliban."

The Iraq invasion was supposed to be a cakewalk. Today, seven years and 34,000 casualties later, President Barack Obama says he is on the verge of bringing that war to "a responsible end." But that may hinge on how you define "responsible" and "end."

All U.S. combat troops are supposed to leave this month, but 50,000 will remain at least through 2011. Their timely departure depends on the Iraqi government achieving a tolerable level of safety and stability.

Neither is a sure thing, since July was the deadliest month for civilians in more than two years and the country still lacks a government five months after the national elections. If we leave, Iraq could easily move from severe turmoil to complete chaos. So the administration could decide we can't.

We should have learned from these experiences that money and military force are not enough to redesign the world to suit us. The record also indicates that ambitious interventions abroad are more likely to erode our security than enhance it, bankrupting us in the process.

Maybe it's time to try a different approach to the world. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that the highest proportion of Americans ever, 49 percent, agree that the United States "should mind its own business internationally." Where could they have gotten that idea?