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Opinion: The Growing Cost of the Third Iraq War

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.

  • Diogenes

    The UN says app. 145,000 Iraqis died between 2003 and 2012, as well as almost 5,000 Americans killed and thousands more permanently maimed. Restraint only arrived with exhaustion. The numbers aren’t yet in from Afghanistan, but the final tally will be repulsive. Meanwhile the dice have been cast. We are once again at war. All the handwringing in Washington over creating civilian casualties fighting ISIL however is a bunch of hogwash. So is going to war over murdered freelancers. They knew the odds. If there was something in it for US foreign policy goals we would already be there slaughtering away except for one rather huge problems: The US military is currently incapable of sustaining a major war at present troop levels, equipment availability, and trained people. The Ready Reserve and National Guard is out of gas. The author obviously knows that, so must the big brass. Dying for one’s country for limited aims is out of vogue everywhere except the Levant. So apparently is thinking. One alternative plan published in AP today includes training “moderate” Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia and then transporting them back to the battle zone. Sort of like putting the hens with the fox. That leaves US air power. Battle ISIL from the air, punish them at every opportunity. Kill their leaders while they are having dinner. Bring on the B-1s and B-2s. Twenty B-2s are sitting idle today. We already paid for them so ostensibly we can afford using them. ISIL can’t. Let the moderates pick up the pieces.

  • sam

    good piece – but to my mind – iraq and the mideast aren’t even our proper sphere of interest (unless your and oilman or a religous fanatic) – we need to focus more on western europe and the pacific. the middle east is a fool’s errand for the US no matter how you slice it. this is how rome fell – far off wars in exotic places – it’s made all the more absurd when you factor in the points made above

  • Jack Lawrence

    Very nice piece. A couple of commentd.We spent the entire Interregnum between the Gulf War and the Iraqi war bombing Iraq. That period is not referred to as a war.
    This is more of a Tripoli than a war. The continuous operations in Central America and the Far East in the first part of the last century were not wars either. Our military is called upon to do many yhings, including the odd bombings. The term war ss being bandued about in the presd is catching, but more political than anything.

    The subtle call for additional taxes is a deft touch.

    • Diogenes

      Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Patterson and Mr. Ctrot all have interesting ideas. Odd bombings sound nifty. The British spent 20 years bombing pre-Iraqis while the French abused Syrians. They didn’t call it a war ether… just tidying up unruly tribesmen. Mr. Ctrot wants to dump on America’s poor people to save a dime so we can afford more war without more taxes. In a perverse way he makes sense… poor people can always join the military for a chance out of poverty. What a deal! Lastly, Mr. Patterson laments the missing “shared experience” of the draft. The only people sharing that experience that I encountered until the end of the Vietnam war were poor people. My platoons were full of them. My own experience with drafted soldiers in mortal combat convinced me poor people forced to serve without any gain are unmotivated warriors and the rich kids who followed when we ran out of poor kids were even worse. It might be cheaper to quit fighting everybody and share the saved money with our countrymen so we don’t have a revolution here. We don’t need the Middle East’s oil or its revolution. Anyone who believes it can’t happen here should have visited Yugo in 92/93. Civilized, educated, cultured people slaughtering each other with abandon. Like watching war in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, or Ferguson, MO two weeks ago for that matter.. Folks need to wake up.

      • Jack Lawrence

        Not sure what you are saying.
        Think that Vietnam and this last war are very similar. Johnson and McNamara. Bush/Cheney And Rumsfeld are the same cast with different names. Including the civilians you site.
        As to the British and French, they were, IIRC, suppressing peoples they claimed to be their own.
        In the case at hand, this is as about as close to an Augustinian just anger as we have seen in a while. Kind of refreshing really, despite the swirling political undercurrents. Not very economical, but still one of those things that really carries its own moral justification. Adjust application of violence to give peace a chance.

        • Diogenes

          Sir, Great analogy about LBJ et al and Bush et al… me too
          No doubt ISIL has provided the world disgusting motivation to want to destroy it, but how soon we forget Zarkowi (SP) and his henchmen in Al Anbar in 2004/5… running around beheading and otherwise terrifying everyone he subdued with his brand of religion. We leveled Fallujah in response… that worked out well. On whose backs are we going to put the price of another adventure in Middle Eastern Good Samaritanship? The US doesn’t have the dough without demolishing our economic recovery to ensure save them. Air power should do quite well as an alternative… there are only about 35K in ISIL and if we play are cards right there won’t be near that many soon… 145K dead Iraqis prove that. I agree with you in that the best answer is giving peace a chance, although peace through air power is a good second..

      • Ctrot

        “Ctrot wants to dump on America’s poor people to save a dime so we can afford more war without more taxes.”

        $22 trillion is “a dime”? THREE TIMES MORE than the combined cost of every single American war is “a dime”?

        As for American “poor” most of the so called poor in America live better than 90% of the rest of the world. 75% of the “poor” in America own a car, a third own 2 or more. Two thirds of American “poor” have cable TV and a widescreen HDTV. A large percentage of American poor are overweight. We keep redefining what “poor” is so that the leftists can hand out more money to buy more voters.

        And where did I say I wanted more war? I am printing out what the problem is with our financial situation, regardless of our going to or avoiding war. In every single year that Obama has been president our budget deficit has exceed the Pentagon budget, that is to say you could have eliminated the entire Pentagon budget and still spend more than we take in.

        And while defense budgets are shrinking the welfare state budget continues to grow.

        • Diogenes

          Sir, No disrespect intended. The fact is the US can no longer afford guns and butter. BTW, the poor people where I live certainly don’t enjoy the things you describe. And they fat because they live on starches and watch TV for lack of anything better to do., but that is another kettle of fish. Irregardless, which is a higher duty, taking care of our unfortunate no matter why they are that way or defending someone else’s unfortunate? The US can’t afford to go to war if we intend to put boots on the ground there and still protect our country here. We can’t even protect our on borders now. . Taking was what little the poor receive is not enough to pay for another war. But it is enough to pay for some peace. Let the Arabs destroy each other. We don’t need what they got. At some point we have to break the cycle of war and rearming for war.

          • Ctrot

            No we can’t afford “guns AND butter” but it isn’t the guns that are breaking the bank, it’s the butter. Or better yet it is the butter we’re buying for people who could afford their own butter if democrats were not so intent on creating a dependent class solely as a means of keeping them in power.

            I’m sorry if facts don’t agree with your antidotal evidence, but facts are stubborn things, they don’t care about your political agenda. And the fact is that much of the “poor” in America (as we’ve chosen to define poor) live better than many countries middle class. We’ve made being jobless so easy with free food, free shelter, free cell phones, free medical care, free booze and dope (paid for with cash back from other freebie programs) that many have made living on federal welfare a way of life, THAT is why they sit and watch TV and grow fat: they have no need for a job.

            But I see I am wasting my time on you. You don’t care about the facts, you have your political agenda and that is all that matters. You insist on using phrases like “save a dime” and “what little the poor receive” when you know, if you bother to look up the real figures, that it is means tested assistance programs that are breaking the federal bank, not guns/defense.

            Like I said, the federal government brings in plenty of revenue. In 2013 federal tax revenue was $2.6 trillion, second only to 2007 when it received $2.66 trillion. The reason we’re in debt is because our government insists on spending 20-60% more than what we take in, with the biggest portion of that going to Means Tested Hand Out Programs, not the Pentagon.

            Break the “cycle of war and rearming for war” you say, how about break the cycle of welfare dependence? But if we did that what would the left do for a new voter base?

          • Diogenes

            Dear Mr. Ctrot, Diogenes was the greatest of the ancient cynics… despised politics… but that does not address the issue of whether the US can afford its latest adventure in neo-democracy, or as I like to call it, bomb now, think later. It matters not a twit whether poor people enjoy the wonderful life you’ve envisioned for them, or whether we need the most powerful military in the world to save everyone from themselves. My life experiences – not anecdotal observation – lead me to believe much of what we see and most of what we hear lately is hooey designed to enable pliable people to swallow whatever is being offered along with inspiring jingoist prognostications and dire warnings about the latest boogieman. It is time to rebuild our country and quit blowing up everyone else’s. I bled for the red white and blue so you and me can say whatever we think and I think war for any reason but national survival stinks despite being the most breathtaking experience a human can endure. Unless you’ve helped put your comrades in a body bag you wouldn’t know about that.

          • Ctrot

            I know who Diogenes was, sir you are no Diogenes.

          • Diogenes

            I’m almost old enough.

  • Ctrot

    More taxes? How about just spend our current tax dollars more wisely, IE on things that matter. In the past 50 years we have spent $22 trillion on LBJ’s “War on Poverty” (NOT including Social Security, Medicare or Unemployment Insurance) which is 3 times more than we have spent fighting every war the US has been involved in since our foundation as a country.

    The treasury is taking in record high amounts of money, we would be flush with cash were it not for the choking effects of the Welfare State.

    • Jack Lawrence

      OK.

  • Pat Patterson

    The concept of shared sacrifice went out with WW2 when just about everyone wanted to volunteer for service and in other capacities – the whole country went to war. We didn’t in Korea and Vietnam was the last war when people were drafted. Vietnam wasn’t a war of shared sacrifice with all the opposition to the service and the war. Most of our military never went to Vietnam. This country is not capable of shared sacrifice unless in an extreme national crisis.

  • Franken

    There is no “defeating” of ISIS and its associated
    ideology. Rather, we are adding credibility to it in the eyes of the
    Muslim world. The West’s pronouncements about it will skyrocket its
    membership, their external $$$ collections will increase, their support base
    will enlarge (read Qatar, KSA, Salafists, Whabbists, etc.), and their
    viciousness will lessen (no longer needed as they morph into governing).
    The Arab street will shrug, ask themselves if they can live with this
    organization, look to see how they can be advantaged, then, without much
    strident-ness, either go along with whatever ISIS becomes or fragment
    into something new. The Shia will find their own organization, and away
    we go.

    Our strategy ought to encompass these tools—

    1) Shaming
    the perpetrators—both those who let them grow, support them financially, send
    them fighters, and don’t do something organically about the current state of
    affairs. This starts with world leaders and ends with religious leaders
    worldwide. None of the perps or their families/friends can travel, hold
    money in banks, or hold occupations outside the war zone, ever. Make this
    very clear and very public (same goes for Putin and his accessories, but that’s
    another saga).

    2) Open
    intel collections to the press and to international courts. Let loose
    every bit of intel regarding atrocities there is. Shame Islam into doing
    something to reign in ‘their kind.’ Make ISIS leadership wanted by the
    int’l criminal court. Forever they will be wanted for crimes against
    humanity. Women don’t like their children raised by such men…ask
    Milosevic.

    3) Let
    non-governmental organizations place bounties on the capture (don’t say kill)
    of ISIS leadership and mid-grade commanders. Make them wanted by every
    man walking behind them and impressed into service. This is a new
    thought…and it is a page from their playbook! The organization hasn’t warranted the US to do this…but private organizations could be doing this very well…and
    with fervor.

    4) Hit
    select targets. Make standing next to an ISIS commander detrimental to
    one’s health. Do this with drones…we can’t afford a pilot capture. Plus, US should deny everything so that drone culpability becomes
    “the larger West and Muslim world” did this hit. Take the US face away from this fight.

    5) Brace
    up the Embassy compounds because they will be attacked.

    6) Let
    the Muslim world take ownership of this effort. The Arabs have an
    expression—Two things you don’t do in public: make love and make peace.
    The corollary is what’s germane—Two things you do in public: make friends and
    make war. The friendship has more credibility and the war is more
    just. Put the Arabs in charge of this effort. Let it fester for as
    long as it takes. They owe this to themselves…the West/East owes them nothing. 1991-2012 is ancient history.

    7) Men
    are making this conflict and gender relations is a wholesale problem in
    Islam. Islam needs to fix itself…just like other religions had to cope with the realization that women are central to advancing society. Modernity will never pass the giggle check unless women are equal under Islam.

    8) Two
    things men really dislike—to be made fun of (not taken seriously) and to
    be ignored. So, unilaterally change the name of ISIS/ISIL/IS. It is
    a bullshit western name made specifically for the West’s press. They are
    neither a State nor Islamic, in the truest sense. Hence, do something
    really radical…change the name of the organization to Islamic Nuts, Islamic
    Marauders, Islam’s Crusaders, Heretic Bashers, whatever, unilaterally.
    Make fun of them in the blogs, in the press, everywhere. Print tee shirts
    with “I joined Islamic Nuts…I am a Member of Is. Nuts” etc. It is what’s
    painful to them…and it keeps that 18 YO in Frankfurt/Milwaukee from joining.

    Training and weaponizing the Iraqi forces is so like
    us. That nation is flooded with weapons and ‘everyone’ has cycled through
    some form of training camp. Forget it. This is culture and politics,
    religion and modernity, a future that is believable versus medievalism.
    It is something that they must come to grips with…and we are prolonging a
    different fight from occurring…at much treasure. Also, we are making of
    ourselves a bulls eye.

    Notice I typed this without mentioning Iran.

    • On Dre

      “So, unilaterally change the name of ISIS/ISIL/IS”
      Agreed. Lets name it now and meme it.

      • On Dre

        ISUK?

  • James Bowen

    Can someone please explain to me how ISIS (or ISIL or whatever they are called) is a threat to the U.S? I just don’t see how these people pose a threat to us. It would be appropriate, if possible, to find out who beheaded those reporters and execute them, but I just don’t see how ISIS poses a direct threat to the U.S.

    • On Dre

      “The threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

      • James Bowen

        If we tried to stamp out injustice everywhere, we would accomplish nothing except for self-ruin. The world is a mess, and the best we can do right now is keep our own house in order.

  • On Dre

    Like talking about the drug wars in S. America without talking about the N. American appetite we cannot talk about war in the ME without talking about the world’s oil addiction. Get off the tar people!