Magazine article Reason

How Much Would War in Syria Cost?

Magazine article Reason

How Much Would War in Syria Cost?

Article excerpt

Defense budgets are out of control. Adding another war won't help.

THE UNITED STATES in August and September began considering in earnest whether or not to become militarily involved in Syria. There are many tough and contentious questions about that decision, but one fact is undeniable: It would be expensive.

In a 2010 paper, Stephen Daggett of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimated the costs of all major U.S. wars expressed in contemporary dollars, from the American Revolution through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the caveat that comparing war costs over a 230-year period is "inherently problematic" because the definition of war has varied and official numbers have included and measured different things over time, and also "because of the difficulties in comparing prices from one vastly different era to another," Daggett nonetheless concludes that the trend is clear: Wars aren't cheap.

According to his estimates, the American Revolution cost $2.4 billion (all numbers are in constant FY2011 dollars), World War I cost $334 billion, World War II cost $4.1 trillion, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined have cost around $1.1 trillion and growing.

The price tag on the proposed intervention in Syria is unclear. According to a Congressional Research Service report published in September, "the cost of any military intervention could range widely depending on the type and length of U.S. military actions, the participation of U.S. allies, and Syrian and Syrian-allied responses." Estimates range from $500 million initially to train, advise, and assist opposition forces in a safe area outside Syria, to as much as $12 billion dollars a year to use military force to establish either a no-fly zone that would prevent the regime from using its aircraft or a buffer zone to protect border areas next to Turkey or Jordan.

If history is any guide we can expect that direct military spending will be grossly underestimated. Take the 2003 war in Iraq. Mitch Daniels, then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, predicted that the war in Iraq would cost $50 to $60 billion, including the costs of reconstruction and clean-up. President Bush's economic advisor Larry Lindsey got canned for suggesting that it could cost as much as $100 billion. But as of 2013, the Cost of War Project estimates that Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined has already reached $1.4 trillion. On top of DOD appropriations, the total costs of the Iraq war alone--including war-related expenses through 2013--is about $1.7 trillion. This number increases to $2.1 trillion when you add substantial costs for veterans through 2053.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy between government-projected and actual costs of war. The first one is mission creep. We tend to intervene more deeply than originally planned, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Second, pro-war interests have an incentive to make the war appear to be as cheap--and therefore attractive--as possible. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed during a September 4 hearing on President Obama's request for an authorization for use of military force in Syria that unnamed "Arab countries" have offered to pay for the administration's proposed war in Syria. Something similar happened in March 2003 when the Bush administration announced that the war in Iraq would be paid for by future oil revenues there. …

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