Part of the Obama administration's war push has been to downplay the cost. When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked by congressional legislators how much an American strike in Syria would cost, he estimated a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars.
It was an obvious low-ball estimate—the Tomahawk missiles that are assumed to be a major part of any strike cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million dollars each, according to Reuters, and the B-2 planes that would fly 36-hour missions cost about $60,000 hour.
The opening salvo against Libya included more than 100 Tomahawk missiles, and eventually the U.S. went on to fire a total of 221. A similar effort in Syria would put the cost well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, even without any planes being sent in. And General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suggested that a conflict in which the U.S. went on to impose a no-fly zone would cost in the range of $1 billion a month.
The Congressional Budget Office's cost estimate of the Senate resolution approving force against Syria, on the other hand, is a little more honest. The CBO took a look at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and came back with an official estimate of: Who the heck knows?
"The Administration has not detailed how it would use the authority that would be provided by this resolution; thus, CBO has no basis for estimating the costs of implementing" the measure, the budget office said yesterday.
The CBO's brief response doesn't give us a very good sense of what strikes against Syria would actually cost. But it's still revealing. The reason the CBO can't score the authorization is that it's not clear what the resolution would actually authorize. The score reflects the vagueness and uncertainty about what the administration would actually do in an attack against Syria—what sort of strikes would be employed, and how long it would last.
And that's because the administration isn't saying what it wants to do. On the one hand, President Obama has talked about the "limited, tailored" approach he says he favors. And Secretary of State has described the planned attacks as "unbelievably small."
On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't be that small. President Obama made it clear in an interview yesterday that any U.S. strike would not be a "pinprick."
"The U.S. does not do pinpricks," he told NBC's Savannah Guthrie. "Our military is the greatest the world has ever known."
And Secretary Kerry has said that if Syrian president Bashar al Assad is "foolish enough to respond to the world's enforcement against his criminal activity, if he does, he will invite something far worse and I believe something absolutely unsustainable for him." That doesn't sound very limited, or tailored, either.
So which is it? Super limited strikes that are unbelievably small? Or a this-is-no-pinprick assault by the greatest military in history—an assault that could invite something far worse, and presumably much larger in scope? CBO doesn't know, and that's why the budget office can't offer an estimate.
More to the point, it's not clear the White House knows either. The Obama team seems pretty sure they want to go to war. But they don't seem to know what kind of war they want to get into.