So how much would a Syria intervention cost anyways? Defense News reports that "Syria Strike Wouldn't Be Cheap" and quotes analysts saying the price tag would be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Others say that if everything goes according to a limited plan, the cost could come in under $100 million. Still others—coff, coff, Leon Panetta—are using just the discussion of a possible action as a pretext to scotch the sequester cuts to military spending and back the Brinks trucks back up to the Pentagon. Just like the feds did throughout the past dozen or so years, when inflation-adjusted military spending rose by more than 70 percent.
Over at National Review Online, Reason columnist Veronique de Rugy notes that only one thing is certain: Any Syria action is likely to cost more—a lot more—than initially advertised. De Rugy reminds us of the ridiculous, low-ball estimates that preceded the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush admin figured that $50 billion to $60 billion would cover everything, including rebuilding costs! The actual amount of direct costs is on the order of $1.7 trillion, plus at least another $45 billion on Veterans Administration costs for post-Iraq care. "I suspect that just like no one had any idea how costly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be," writes de Rugy, "no one really knows how this intervention will play out nor how much it would cost (not to mention what it would really achieve)."
As important as the actual amount of money spent, she stresses that how we pay for it matters too. Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, de Rugy was among the few people to stress that most of the war was billed to emergency and supplemental appropriations, a loophole that allowed the government to avoid going through the sort of tougher budget processes through which spending is typically vetted. Even years into Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush admin was still claiming that the wars were surprise expenses.
And forget about actually doing the honorable thing, which would have been to pass a war tax to fund the operations. That's a tried-and-true way to make sure that citizens better understand the stakes and sacrifice that comes with waging war (which is precisely why pols avoid it if they can).
De Rugy stresses that given the current state of the American economy and the federal budget, elective war in Syria is not something that should go on the nation's Visa card. The Pentagon has long been complaining about the sequester's effects on its ability to spend spend spend, but it's up to them to figure out how to pay for a splendid little war in Syria without increasing overall outlays. Indeed, the sequester's impact on the Pentagon budget in FY2013 is something on the order of $55 billion out of total spending that topped over $900 billion in FY2012.
Whether the intervention costs a little or a lot of money, we cannot afford to commit to an intervention without having a plan to pay for it. If some in Washington feel that an intervention in Syria is key to U.S. national-security interests, then they should identify lower-priorities that the Pentagon should put on the back burner to make space for this new one. That means identifying lower-priority spending items to cut to pay for this intervention. An alternative would be to make the case for a war tax.