Were The American Wars Worth $4.7 Trillion?

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Today, MSNBC summarized a report by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. 

They report that the final bill for the American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will total between $4.7 and $5.4 trillion.  Trillion!

I’ll provide my take on what MSNBC reports:

1) “In the 10 years since U.S. troops went into Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaida leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, spending on the conflicts totaled $2.3 trillion to $2.7 trillion.

Those numbers will continue to soar when considering often overlooked costs such as long-term obligations to wounded veterans and projected war spending from 2012 through 2020.

The estimates do not include at least $1 trillion more in interest payments coming due and many billions more in expenses that cannot be counted, according to the study.

So, the final figure of $4.7-$5.4 trillion is arrived at first by adding the $2.3-$2.7 trillion to the overlooked costs listed above.

And then on top of that, you add at least $1 trillion more in interest payments!

2) MSNBC continues:

“The report…raises the question of what the United States gained from its multi-trillion-dollar investment.”

Now that’s an understatement if I ever saw one!

3) “Was it worth it? That is a question many people want answered, said Catherine Lutz, head of the anthropology department at Brown and co-director of the study.”

No kidding, Sherlock! Was it worth it? Well, before I comment, let’s see what the report concludes!

4) “For every person killed on Sept. 11, another 73 have been killed since.”

Wow.

So, each of the 73 represents about 3,000 people. 

How many of those 73 were terrorists that would’ve targeted US interests had the war not occurred?

Maybe 1, or about 3,000 terrorists? Maybe 2 or 3?  Even 5?

Let’s use, for argument’s sake, what I consider to be a conservative figure: 5 out of 73.  That would mean that 68 out of 73 killed, or 93.2%, were killed needlessly.  Wouldn’t you say?

That’s disturbing.

However, one can’t blame the US for all of those deaths, because many, if not most of them, were caused by terrorists attacking Iraqi civilians. 

There is one crucial exception, however:  If the US had reason to believe it was reasonably likely that those deaths would occur, then they are at least indirectly to blame.

Also, when determining whether the large number of fatalities was worth it, you’d have to compare them to the expected benefits (which could be quite great, if the war were to prevent attacks on the US by weapons of mass destruction).

However, even if the US expected to be attacked by WMDs, it’s one thing to be willing to sacrifice your own people to prevent it, and quite another to sacrifice foreigners!

If the US was reasonably sure that a WMD attack would occur, and also reasonably sure that terrorists would kill as many Iraqis as they did, although the war may have been worth it in terms of overall lives saved, it’s not the place of Americans to allow hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to die in order to save hundreds of thousands of Americans!

I’m certainly not convinced that the US would’ve gone to war with Iraq had they known the actual final cost of the war, in both lives and treasure.

5) “What did the United States gain for its trillions?

Strategically, the results for the United States are mixed. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead, but Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable democracies. Iran has gained influence in the Gulf and the Taliban, though ousted from government, remain a viable military force in Afghanistan.

‘The United States has been extremely successful in protecting the homeland,’ said George Friedman, founder of STRATFOR, a U.S.-based intelligence company.

‘Al-Qaida in Afghanistan was capable of mounting very sophisticated, complex, operations on an intercontinental basis. That organization with that capability has not only been substantially reduced, it seems to have been shattered,’ Friedman said.

Economically, the results are also mixed. War spending may be adding half a percentage point a year to growth in the gross domestic product but that has been more than offset by the negative effects of deficit spending, the report concludes.”

Here’s the problem.  When it comes to judging whether it was worth it to go to war, you determine whether you made a good decision based on the information available at the time.

You don’t evaluate decisions based on their actual outcome…because nobody can predict outcomes with certainty!  If you were to evaluate actions based on their actual outcome, then why would anyone need to make any decisions?

But nonetheless, it’s interesting to evaluate what America actually got in return for what it gave up.

Although there are many factors to consider, I have no doubt that they got very little in return.

In hindsight, based on publicly available information, the war in Iraq was certainly not worth it.

Now, I’m not one of those people who will look at the numbers and claim that $4.7 to $5.4 trillion were wasted.  Regardless of what the wars achieved, that’s certainly not the case.

Much, if not most of that spending, stayed within America. Therefore, such spending didn’t lower the wealth of the USA overall. 

However, it represented a type of transfer of wealth: From 1) the taxpayers who borrowed the money to go to war (mostly the wealthy, since they are the ones that pay most of the taxes) to 2) the Americans who received the money.  Those would include, among others, servicemen and women, and weapons contractors.

So, I would say that war spending spent within America was basically a transfer of funds from upper class taxpayers to the middle class (military, employees of weapons companies and domestic oil companies) and upper class (owners and large shareholders of weapons companies and domestic oil companies).

But what about the spending that didn’t stay within the US?  Such examples are:  The purchase of oil from foreign countries, and the payment of interest to foreign lenders!

I don’t know how much the cost of the oil was, but you can bet it’s substantial, given the number of gas guzzling vehicles operating in a war zone for many years!

And what about the interest cost?  MSNBC doesn’t state how much of the core $2.3-$2.7 trillion was spent purchasing oil from foreigners, but MSNBC does say that it’s projected that future interest costs will be $1 trillion!

So, when looking at the proportion of war spending that will leave the US economy, you’re looking at at least $1 trillion of the total $4.7-$5.4 trillion!

Sure, Al-Qaeda has been weakened substantially.  Given the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are likely to be better off in the long term.  But you could argue that the removal of Saddam Hussein benefited the Iraqis more than it benefited Americans.  Sure, Iraq is now an ally, but that’s hardly a dramatic enough benefit to justify $1+ trillion in lost wealth.  In order to begin approaching justification for the lost $1 trillion, you’d have to believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein prevented him from creating and using WMDs in the future.

So, what if the wars prevented a WMD attack that would’ve killed 10,000 people?  Is it worth it to lose $1 trillion+ to save 10,000 people, when you consider that over those ten years about 100,000 people have died from the flu alone?

To spend $1 trillion to save 10,000 lives is a cost of $100 million per person.  A society certainly can’t afford that, especially a society with massive debts.  I’m not sure what a fair figure would be, but even $10 million per person might be overpriced.

Conclusion

So, I think it’s fair to conclude the following:

Unless the wars have prevented attacks on America that would have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, there is no way in hell America got what they paid for.

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