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Commentary

The Costs of an Expanding Long War


     
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Our government budget is in the red. Our national debt is quickly approaching $9 trillion. Lawrence Kotlikoff, a top economist from Boston University, argues in a recent paper that the U.S. Government is already bankrupt. This analysis may be an overstatement, but given likely trends in the balances for Social Security, Medicare, and some potentially huge long-term costs for what has become the “Long War” in Iraq, one could at least say that things don’t look so great over the next few years. The situation looks even worse if we consider the increasing structural and political inflexibility of the budget. Mandatory expenditures have been a greatly increasing proportion of the budget over the last decades. An expanding  “Long War” in Iraq is going to be quite a strain on an already stretched budget. Taxes will go up, regardless of what our political leaders say.

The price of oil is up, and a good part of this increase is due to the risk premiums created by tensions throughout the world. The current tensions in Iraq, for example, may account for as much as a $20-25 increase in the price of crude oil. That increase is further reflected in the price of gasoline for our cars, diesel for our trucks, and even spills over to increase the prices of other energy products. These energy costs are then passed on, in differing degrees, in higher food prices and other consumer goods. Now think about what could happen if the price of oil goes to $100-150, or even $200, and the “Long War” in Iraq expands into Iran and other parts of the Middle East.  Consider the inflation and unemployment that could result.

We are already spending $1.5 billion a week in Iraq and hundreds of millions per week in Afghanistan. Any further expansion of the “Long War” could increase those costs considerably.  Over 2,600 of our brave soldiers, marines and sailors have died in Iraq. About 20,000 have been injured, many with debilitating injuries. If the “Long War” spreads, many more will die. Many more will come home physically and psychologically maimed and many more families will experience that aching sadness that comes with losing a loved one, or seeing a loved one suffer.

Some are saying that the Israeli-Lebanese war was a “dress rehearsal” for the U.S.-Iran war. Well, if they believe that then surely our leaders should think twice about going forward with any attack on Iran. Actually, the better example of a “dress rehearsal” for an attack on Iran is what is happening in Iraq. And that attack has not set a good precedent. Furthermore, Iran is much larger than Iraq, has much more complex strategic geography, is a more homogenous country, has a very long history of nationalism, and has 79 million people who are likely to turn on America if the U.S. government invades. Iran also has many of its people on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf who could cause great mischief. Our troops and others in Iraq and elsewhere would be in much greater danger, if the U.S. goes to war with Iran. In fact, Iran is now the most powerful outside influence in Iraq, not the US.

World and national perceptions of the U.S. military--made up of many brave, committed and decent people--have been hit hard by what has been going on in Iraq and elsewhere. The vaunted can-do nature of Americans is being questioned now, more than ever, as the world sees the astonishing setbacks in the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

The great sympathy that the world had for the U.S. after the horrific events of 9/11 is all but gone.  Many of the people in the countries of our closest allies see the U.S., not the terrorists, as the most dangerous threat facing the world.  Anti-Americanism is up worldwide. Expanding the war will hardly bring people around. Furthermore, attacking or invading Iran could also act as a tipping point for many in the Muslim world to deem this a clash of civilizations that will necessarily escalate. Is anyone willing to guess at the costs of that outcome?

War is hell. War is costly. A “Long War” is more of both. We need to find better ways of sorting out and addressing the threats and opportunities we face before we no longer have any choices.


Paul Sullivan is a Professor of Economics at the National Defense University and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. All opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of the National Defense University or of any other entity of the U.S. Government.






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