Opinion: The Growing Cost of the Third Iraq War

September 16, 2014 8:25 AM - Updated: September 16, 2014 9:25 AM
ISIS fighters.
ISIS fighters.

As of Sept. 10, the Third Iraq War is now official. While some debate whether we should call it a war, a campaign or a sustained operation, a set of clear national objectives has now been articulated by President Barack Obama and the number of U.S. airstrikes are escalating daily. 

Prior to the president’s speech that declared the United States would conduct a sustained “counterterrorist campaign” against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), the U.S. military had already executed more than 150 airstrikes.

Opinion polls show that the American people appear willing to accept expanding this operation into Syria as a fear of ISIS has clearly reached the hearts and minds of many Americans. This public support for war comes even as the president made clear that this will not be a short campaign, when he stated “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”

As U.S. leaders work to build an international coalition, one point that has not been raised thus far is how will this war, or whatever we are calling it today, be paid for?

Few so-called average Americans seem to worry about the cost of war. Perhaps that is because so few of them, outside of the military or government agencies, have shared any tangible sacrifice in the past 13 years of war. There are many points of criticism that have been levied against the administration of President George W. Bush, and history is beginning to capture most of those for the official record. I would offer that one of the greatest errors of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith — and the other architects of the post Sept. 11, 2001 wars — was their failure to ask Americans to share in the sacrifice.

That failure to ask the American public to “put skin into the game” when America goes to war, has not just weakened America’s financial muscle, it has also set a precedent for removing the cost of war from the national conscience. As Andrew Bacevich and increasing number of scholars are beginning to note, the end of the draft in 1973 did not just create the all-volunteer armed forces; more important, it removed the threat of America asking for sons and daughters. Now with the precedent set for conducting no-cost to the American public wars, that removes the threat that America will ask for the public to bear the financial cost of war. Among the many consequences of removing “shared sacrifice” of any type from the go-to-war-equation is that it leaves the nation less able to confront emerging threats like ISIS.

In 2001, and even 2003, the vast majority of Americans were willing to share the cost of the war. Today, as the threat is arguably greater than at any point since 9/11, there is far less support among the American people for shared sacrifice. It is not the fault of the American public, after all 99 percent of this generation has been conditioned since 1991’s Desert Storm to not expect any cost when their nation goes to war. Even when it is a war the public views as necessary. Unfortunately, the opportunity to get the American people to help carry the financial burden of war likely flew out the window before the “surge” became necessary to end the Second Iraq War.

In ancient Greece, when the Athenian leaders pondered whether or not to risk a war with Sparta, they first made a careful accounting of Athens’ reserve wealth and the potential revenues that were available to fund the war. The ancient historian Thucydides recorded that the Athenians calculated that they could sustain a war against Sparta for about 6 years before they would burn through their reserves. The war between Sparta and Athens violently waxed and waned for 32 years, finally leaving Athens in ruins both financially and physically.

The approximately $3 trillion spent on war in the past 13 years, coupled with the impact of the 2008 economic meltdown, has left nothing in reserve for this phase of the conflict. Where will the money come from? Will a “war-tax” finally be levied? The odds that the Chicago Cubs (with 65 Wins and 84 losses on 15 September) will win this year’s World Series are probably better than this Congress raising taxes to fund the Third Iraq War.

Approaching Athens and Sparta’s war timeline, the United States has now been at war with, or inside of, Iraq for 25 years. While the cost has been high, it is not likely to leave the United States in ruins. But, the cumulative effect does run the risk of draining away our future national security needs. The truth is that funding this war, and investing in America’s future security needs is within the nation’s means. However, this would require American leaders to figure out a way to draw wealth from its as yet untapped reservoir of shared sacrifice.

The mistakes of the Bush administration in estimating the cost of the 9/11 wars were made because the leadership of the administration, Secretary Colin Powell as the exception, firmly believed that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be quick, cheap, and relatively easy. They were not. The cost kept rising, and unlike the shared sacrifice levied to fund America’s other great wars, there was no effort to raise revenues to fight the post-9/11 wars. No American was asked to buy a war bond to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, Americans were given the largest tax breaks since the end of World War II and told to go out and enjoy life.

Today, in Iraq and Syria, each airstrike conducted is estimated to cost between $30,000-40,000. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby recently told reporters that the operations in Iraq were costing an average of $7.5 million per day. Using that number, the total incurred cost is now approaching $1 billion. With the promise of a sustained campaign (read protracted) there will likely be hundreds of days, and thousands more airstrikes before this “sustained counterterrorism campaign” is finished. Where will these billions upon billions in overseas contingency dollars be found?

The 1 percent of Americans that did sacrifice a great deal these past 13 years—those in uniform, their families, and dedicated individuals working for the Defense Department in some capacity—should take notice, because more sacrifice will be now be required. And it won’t just be more deployments to the “sandbox.” No, this added sacrifice will be your future weapon systems, training, and research and development budgets. Short of some miraculous development on Capitol Hill that levies a tax to raise the funds needed to defeat ISIS, the Third Iraq War will be paid for by sacrificing the acquisition of the future ships, aircraft, and the training needed to defend our nation against a whole range of threats now and in the future.

Right now the American people seem to think fighting ISIS is urgently necessary. While they may be correct in that assessment, are they ready to open up their wallets to buy the fuel, ammo, and thousands of other widgets that make military operations in faraway dangerous places possible? Perhaps nobody is asking that question in the public arena because they already know the answer.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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