Can the U.S. afford another $3 trillion war?

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August 27, 2014 by Bill Johnson


Editor’s note: Linda J. Bilmes is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer at Harvard University, and co-author (with Joseph Stiglitz) of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — After piling up trillions of dollars of war debt during the last decade, America seemed to be on the brink of a new era — ready to shut off the Iraq-Afghanistan funding faucet, bring its troops home and enjoy a peace dividend.

But the respite looks like it will be brief. The new security threats around the world are leading to renewed calls for military engagement: maybe not boots on the ground but air strikes, drones and weapons and training for shadowy opposition groups.

With Iraq descending into chaos and ISIS beheading Americans, the public is alarmed not only at the prospect of getting dragged back into the fray, but also wondering if the economy can withstand any more.

Of course, in purely financial terms, the U.S. can easily pay for whatever it takes. Patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq during the 1990s after the first Gulf War cost around $12 billion a year.

Training the opposition and protecting civilians in Syria, combined with a weighty air campaign to take on both ISIS and the Assad regime, would cost some $20-22 billion per year, according to an estimate by Ken Pollack from the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

These are small numbers compared to the nearly $200 billion the U.S. has been shelling out each year for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And the U.S is still a rich country; interest rates are low and borrowing is cheap.

Iraq, Afghan legacy

Despite all of this, the cost of re-engaging in conflict will be heavy. The country is still digging itself out from the financial hole created by the extraordinarily expensive Iraq and Afghan wars.

In addition to the trillions appropriated for war spending, the regular Pentagon budget grew by $1.3 billion in constant dollars since 2001to the highest levels in real terms since World War II. This “culture of endless money,” as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it, was notoriously wasteful, with accounting systems so flawed it was impossible to track where all the money was being spent.

Withdrawal from Iraq and the expected departure from Afghanistan was supposedly a prelude to belt-tightening at the Pentagon. Congress enacted measures designed to cut military spending by some $540 billion over the next decade.

Thanks in part to the budget “sequester” of 2011, the Pentagon announced deep cuts in almost all areas, including shrinking the size of the army from 520,000 to 440,000 troops, paring back military pay raises and benefits, buying fewer weapons and attempting to clean up its finances.

Read more: Can the U.S. afford another $3 trillion war?

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