How Much Would War in Syria Cost?

Defense budgets are out of control. Adding another war won't help.


The United States in August and September began considering in earnest whether or not to become militarily involved in Syria. There are many tough and contentious questions about that decision, but one fact is undeniable: It would be expensive.

In a 2010 paper, Stephen Daggett of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimated the costs of all major U.S. wars expressed in contemporary dollars, from the American Revolution through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the caveat that comparing war costs over a 230-year period is "inherently problematic" because the definition of war has varied and official numbers have included and measured different things over time, and also "because of the difficulties in comparing prices from one vastly different era to another," Daggett nonetheless concludes that the trend is clear: Wars aren't cheap.

According to his estimates, the American Revolution cost $2.4 billion (all numbers are in constant FY2011 dollars), World War I cost $334 billion, World War II cost $4.1 trillion, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined have cost around $1.1 trillion and growing.

The price tag on the proposed intervention in Syria is unclear. According to a Congressional Research Service report published in September, "the cost of any military intervention could range widely depending on the type and length of U.S. military actions, the participation of U.S. allies, and Syrian and Syrian-allied responses." Estimates range from $500 million initially to train, advise, and assist opposition forces in a safe area outside Syria, to as much as $12 billion dollars a year to use military force to establish either a no-fly zone that would prevent the regime from using its aircraft or a buffer zone to protect border areas next to Turkey or Jordan.

If history is any guide we can expect that direct military spending will be grossly underestimated. Take the 2003 war in Iraq. Mitch Daniels, then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, predicted that the war in Iraq would cost $50 to $60 billion, including the costs of reconstruction and clean-up. President Bush's economic advisor Larry Lindsey got canned for suggesting that it could cost as much as $100 billion. But as of 2013, the Cost of War Project estimates that Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined has already reached $1.4 trillion. On top of DOD appropriations, the total costs of the Iraq war alone-including war-related expenses through 2013-is about $1.7 trillion. This number increases to $2.1 trillion when you add substantial costs for veterans through 2053.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy between government-projected and actual costs of war. The first one is mission creep. We tend to intervene more deeply than originally planned, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Second, pro-war interests have an incentive to make the war appear to be as cheap-and therefore attractive-as possible. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed during a September 4 hearing on President Obama's request for an authorization for use of military force in Syria that unnamed "Arab countries" have offered to pay for the administration's proposed war in Syria. Something similar happened in March 2003 when the Bush administration announced that the war in Iraq would be paid for by future oil revenues there.

But no matter how large the direct price tag for war, that's only a down payment on what military interventions usually end up costing taxpayers. Queens College economics professor Ryan D. Edwards looked at the costs of 10 major U.S. wars in a 2010 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, and found that the costs of death and disability compensation, health care, and survivors' benefits to veterans and their dependents "represent between one third and one half of the total present value of all war costs."

Even for short and seemingly cheap engagements, like the 2011 Libya intervention and possibly Syria this year, the unfunded liability of future veterans' benefits will have lasting implications for fiscal policy beyond the short-term impact on the budget and economy. That was certainly the case for both the Spanish-American War and the first Gulf War.

Any Syria-war costs would also be higher than originally announced because lawmakers will abuse the "emergency" spending process. During the two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this back-door budgeting scheme allowed President Bush and his Republican Congress to not only conceal the true costs to taxpayers, but also to avoid painful budget choices while funneling billions of dollars in unvetted goodies to favored military contractors. The result was more defense and nondefense spending. Lawmakers from both parties have refused to close this emergency loophole, even though Obama has so far kept his promise to fund the war out of regular appropriations.

There's another factor that could trigger higher-than-projected costs in Syria. As soon as news of a potential U.S. strike hit the news cycle, hawks and pro-defense spending interests started making the case that it would require boosting defense spending or putting an end to the defense spending cuts implemented on March 1 of this year though sequestration. During a September 8 interview on CNN's State of the Union program, for instance, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, warned that many Republicans would only support the president's intervention if it was coupled with repeal of the modest defense cuts.

The cost implications of undoing hard-fought sequestration could be large. Democrats wouldn't agree to re-boosting defense spending without undoing the rest of the sequestration cuts as well. If that happens, as with emergency supplementals, both defense and nondefense spending will grow much faster than projected.

For all these reasons, Americans should demand that lawmakers do a much better job at projecting all the costs of an intervention in Syria. Then, they need to demand a credible plan on how it will be paid for. Under no circumstances should war ever again simply be added to the nation's credit card.

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  1. President Obama promised that we would go into Syria if they crossed the red line and they crossed the red line so obviously we won’t be going into Syria.

    1. But he will cancel their health insurance.

      1. But just because they didn’t like their plan.

      2. Their health insurance won’t cover chemical weapons, but will cover frostbite and shark attack.

    2. If you like your undeclared wars, you can keep them!

    3. Also threatened to implement syrianhealthcare.gov

    4. “If you like your ruthless dictator, you can keep me, uh, *him*!”

  2. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!

    Alternate joke: We’re going to give military aid to the secular resistance, and there’s no way the weapons will get into the hands of the Islamists. The secular opposition can keep their arms so long as they can keep their heads.


    1. About that…

      “In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date.”

      Well, at least these arms aren’t ending up in the wrong hands…or if they are there’s no record of it!


      1. Nothing. Left. To. Cut.

      2. at least these arms aren’t ending up in the wrong hands

        That’s their left hands, correct?

      3. Saw a special the other day about MS9. One of the gang leaders had a relative in the US Army would report weapons as lost and then sell to them at a discount. Obviusly you have to consider the source but not wholly unbelievable.

          1. +4 MS

        1. I’m torn on this. On the one hand I can totally see things getting “lost”. On the other when I was in, misplacing a sensitive item of any kind was a such a big fucking deal, with lockdowns in garrison or walking arms width apart in the field looking for whatever it was, that it makes me skeptical.

          1. I think it varies depending on the unit. Some parts of the military offer many more opportunities to be a Mr. Grabby Hands.

      4. My libertarian sprirt is torn. On the one hand, I hate the waste of taxpayer money. On the other hand, I love the idea of an enormous stockpile of incompetently-monitored weapons.

        1. And my spelling has been taken by the skwirrelz.

    2. Obama, McCain, Graham, and a bunch of other congress critters still have major butthurt over having to sneak around over there and do limited damage, instead of the major clusterfuck they had planned.

  3. Thanks Vladimir Putin for outwitting our dumb fuck president and likely saving thousands of American lives. Please, take over in Egypt, Libya, etc too.

  4. We need to support Syrian mujaheddin in order to provide quality jihad at affordable prices. Now, my opponents have suggested that arming al-Qaeda affiliates could be risky to Americans and Syrians. This is a false choice, and I will promise you this: If you like your head, you can keep it.

  5. You can’t keep buying new bombs until you use the stockpile of bombs you already have. The MIC needs perpetual war.

    1. Once any agency, department, or bureau of government is created, it’s only real goal is to expand and get a bigger budget. The DOD is no different. Perpetual war, it’s best for us, and jerbz. Also, see population control.

      1. What better way to stimulate the economy and create jobs that foreigners can’t compete with, than actually bombing the foreign competition?

        I mean, as long as the people on the receiving in are foreigners, then, we come first, right? Why should defense policy be different from, say, immigration, or free trade?


  6. How can Veronique even ask this question??? Doesn’t she know that there are executives at Lockhead, Raytheon, Honeywell, and Boeing with Bentleys that need gilding? Jesus, these kinds of anti-American ramblings from an obvious foreigner disgust me. Also….the Troops.

    1. anti-American ramblings from an obvious foreigner disgust me

      Calling Captn Dronebot….

  7. “Something similar happened in March 2003 when the Bush administration announced that the war in Iraq would be paid for by future oil revenues there.”

    That one never made any sense. Were they suggesting that we were going to strip Iraq of its oil resources to pay for to cost of invasion–sort of like the French when they occupied the Ruhr Valley? Were the Iraqi people, upon having been democratized, supposed to willingly give us all of that oil–out of gratitude for having bombed, invaded, and occupied them?

    That justification was Bush-speak for ” If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.”

  8. I don’t know about anyone else, but the cash value of a war has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons I’m opposed to war in Syria, and opposed to most “wars.”

    1. This is obvious. As a teathugliklan ratbagging wrecker, you oppose war in Syria because Racism.

  9. Im making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,,,,,


  10. “How much would would war in Syria cost?”

    That is not the question; there is no question. The relevant statement is: to ensure the prestige of the Il Douche Regime, no expense of money, freedom or lives will be spared.

  11. in earnest whether or not to become militarily involved in Syria. There are many tough…

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