Middle East

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to advance President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan hang in the air as we weigh up whether to attack Syria. Of course, no situation is ever quite the same, and in this case the president is not urging a full-fledged invasion, just air and naval attacks. But after more than a decade of inconclusive war in the region, comparisons are inevitable.

As Mark Steyn put it in a recent piece for the National Review, “The 2003 dictator who gassed his own people was the leader of the Baath Party of Iraq. The 2013 dictator who gassed his own people is the leader of the Baath Party of Syria. Whole other ball of wax.” 

The danger of being sucked into a ground war is one of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are equally important lessons about costs, which we would do well to heed.

The danger of being sucked into a ground war is one of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are equally important lessons about costs, which we would do well to heed.

In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration deliberately refused to consider the potential expense. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Mitch Daniels (head of the Office of Management and Budget) insisted that the war would be quick and cheap — perhaps costing $60 billion.

Larry Lindsey, the top economic advisor to President Bush, was fired for suggesting that the invasion might cost up to $200 billion. Lindsey later wrote a book attributing many of the subsequent mistakes in Iraq to the administration’s unwillingness to think about costs from the outset.

Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately set U.S. taxpayers back between $4 to $6 trillion, depending on the rate of replenishment of equipment and weaponry, how many veterans ultimately require medical care, the growth rate of TRICARE (the Department of Defense heath care program) for reservists, guards, and retirees, and how quickly we repay interest on war debt.

Here are four lessons from those conflicts that we should bear in mind if we intervene in Syria:

1. The costs go on long after combat phase is finished.

Even short conflicts have long term costs. The 1991 Gulf War lasted for six weeks and our coalition allies paid for the combat phase. But the U.S. now spends $4 billion per year paying disability benefits to veterans of that conflict, many of whom suffer from conditions related to “Gulf War Syndrome.” Historically, the bill for veteran’s war costs always has come due 30 to 40 years later. The peak year for paying disability compensation to World War I veterans was in 1969. The largest expenditures for World War II veterans were in the 1980s. Payments to Vietnam veterans are still climbing.

Future expenditures will be even higher for those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, due to much higher survival rates, more generous benefits, and new, expensive medical treatments. The Department of Veterans Affairs has already treated more than 800,000 veterans from these conflicts, the majority of whom qualify for disability compensation for the rest of their lives. The bill for disability benefits, medical care, and Social Security Disability Insurance to these veterans will add another $900 billion to the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan era.

2. Failure to plan for how to pay for the war can have disastrous consequences for the economy.

The trillions of dollars spent to date for Iraq and Afghanistan have been plunked on the national credit card. How is this possible?

Starting with the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration requested, and Congress appropriated so-called “emergency supplemental” funds for war operations. (Such funding is typically reserved for natural disasters like hurricanes.) The designation allowed us to bypass all regular spending caps. This turned out to be an irresistible strategy. Over the next decade, Congress enacted the majority of war spending in 37 more “emergency supplemental” bills. This spending spree was accompanied by major tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 — thereby adding another $2 trillion onto the national debt.

The war debt sharply constrained our flexibility in responding to the 2008 financial crisis, contributing to a stimulus package that was too small and a protracted recession — with the accompanying budget battles, fiscal cliffs, sequestration and government-closure threats.

3. The costs of war are unpredictable.

The Iraq War cost far more than originally estimated — and it also set off a chain of events that had far-reaching economic consequences.

Last month, Baron Alan West, the former head of Britain’s Royal Navy, argued in the House of Lords, “There is no doubt that prime ministers and presidents think they can have clinical little military strikes and keep control of things, but you cannot. Once you start these things there is the law of unintended consequences.”

One of the unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the impact on oil prices, which spiked from $25 a barrel in 2003 (where the price had remained stable for two decades) to a peak of $140 in 2008. Since then they have rarely dipped below $100.

Assuming that Congress authorizes military action in Syria along the lines of the resolution passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. will have permission to conduct non-ground operations for up to 90 days, and the goal of military operations should be to alter the balance in the civil war.

However, as my colleague Winslow Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information, pointed out in a recent email correspondence, that would not exclude ground forces introduced for other purposes, such as “humanitarian” operations, peace keeping, or an “emergency” to seize chemical weapons stocks. It is difficult to imagine that the global economy will stand still for three months while events are unfolding. 

4. The U.S. does a poor job of war accounting.

The U.S. lacks the basic accounting systems necessary to understand and analyze where and how money is spent. In Iraq and Afghanistan, weak spending controls resulted in rampant waste, fraud, profiteering, mismanagement, and co-mingling of war and non-war related funds.

The special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction estimated that $8 billion of the $60 billion appropriated for reconstruction was entirely wasted.

The Pentagon’s accounting system is so flawed that there is no way even to perform an audit. Indeed, officials admit they have “lost visibility” on tens of billions of dollars.

The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, Pentagon inspectors general, and others have repeatedly said that we don’t even know how much we spent on these wars.

We also do not account for the value of lives lost, or the future value of deferred benefits owed to veterans.

The economic lessons from 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan are that we underestimated the costs, borrowed all the money to pay for them, and failed to account for where it was all spent. Whatever the political calculus in Syria, we can surely do better than that.

If the United States decides to get involved in Syria, we should ask today’s taxpayers to bear the upfront expense, monitor where the money is spent, and set aside funds to care for the inevitable long-term costs of those who risk their lives in combat.

Linda J. Bilmes is the co-author (with Joseph Stiglitz) of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”  This essay is drawn from her remarks at the American Political Science Association, “Tenth Anniversary of the U.S. War in Iraq: Power, Persuasion and Lessons of War” on August 30, 2013 and her keynote address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War in March, 2013. Read more of Bilmes’ writing about “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan,”  here.

Tags: Barack Obama, Middle East, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • steph

    No mention in detail of the most recent wasted resources from the military “surge” and nation building in one of the most primitive places on earth by Obama. How convenient! More left wing selective “journalism”.

  • Maria Cruz

    Analisen la situacion no va hacer nada facil por favor no lo hagan no vale la pena una guerra donde se perderian tantas vidas y se llevarian trillones de dolares que ninguna de los dos es nesesaria por favor son mis palabras muy humildes no al nivel de ustedes, pero que estoy mirando el futuro y no hay nada que se solucione con violencia por favor seamos consientes de las consecuencias gananeremos mas con dialogo que con violencia. Entiendo todas las vidas que este senor sin conciencia arrebato y se han convertido en nuestros angeles que han de cuidar de nosotros.BENDICIIONES PARA TODOS.

    • fun bobby

      mucho gracias

  • bogemin

    I agreed with everything until the last sentence. The logical conclusion if there are so many potential costs is DON’T DO IT! We already have $16 trillion debts to pay off.

  • David F

    Ms. Bilmes neglects to say anything of the cost of doing nothing in Syria.

    • fun bobby

      and that is?

      • David F

        Doing nothing will ensure that the credibility of the United States in the international community erodes even further. Our president, like him or not, did “draw a red line” and someone, the Syrian government or the rebels, jumped right over it and are now going to rub Obama’s face in it. Of course he did very carefully put himself in that position. Perhaps we can work to regain the lost credibility when he’s out of office.

        Also would you prefer to send the message to the international community that using chemical weapons is OK?

        • fun bobby

          I could care less about what the world thinks of Obama’s credibility. If Obama bombs Syria all the world will see is more American military bullying of yet another middle eastern country. it will reinforce the popular idea that America is an evil empire
          personally I think the distinction between chemical and non chemical is completely meaningless. who cares?

          • David F

            189 of the 206 sovereign states on Earth are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. So while you don’t care, most of the rest of the world does.

          • fun bobby

            is Syria one of the signatories?

          • David F

            That information is easy enough to find, why are you even asking?

            It does not matter if they signed it or not, no one wants them or anyone else using chemical weapons. 189 to 5, Syria loses the vote on using chemical weapons.

          • fun bobby

            because nations who have not signed a treaty should not be “punished” by those who have but ignore it when its convenient. no one launched cruise missiles at us when we violated the treaty and used chemical weapons in Iraq. we have neither the legal nor the moral high ground. this is another stupid war of choice. the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons is completely arbitrary. if all those other nations really care then let them shoot their missiles or better yet let the un come up with a solution that does not involve trying to fix this problem with more killing.

          • David F

            The United States never used chemical weapons in Iraq.

            We did look the other way when Saddam Hussein used them on the Kurds. Are you suggesting we should use this as an example of how to behave? We were wrong once so lets do it again?

          • chicken little

            not entirely accurate. The US provided Hussein’s forces with logistical information to help them better target the Iranian forces. Though the US did not pull the trigger, they were clearly complicit. see:

          • David F

            What I said was entirely accurate, the United States did not use chemical weapons in Iraq (or Iran). We did look the other way when Saddam Hussein used them.

            So again I ask, is this really the example we want to follow? Look the other way and do nothing to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria? Everyone wants to decry what a horrible thing it was that the United States did nothing when Hussein gassed civilians and troops alike. Now when we can do something to stop it again, no one wants to do anything about it.

            So be it, in the future don’t ever utter a single word to say the US should have done something to stop Syria from using chemical weapons. Remember it was you and others like you who chose to do nothing.

          • fun bobby

            most of that criticism comes from the fact that we left the kurds out to dry when we left. I hope assad kills everyone of those terrorists and I don’t really care how he does it. what is the difference in being shot and gassed?

          • David F

            The difference is quick and painful vs. a slow, long, drawn out, and torturous living hell, until death comes as a blessing for those lucky enough to die, from what I’ve been told by those who know. Chemical agents are above and beyond cruel and unusual.

            The problem is that not all of the rebels are terrorists, some of them are just fighting for their freedom.

          • fun bobby

            plus there is all the white phosphorous we dropped on them.


          • fun bobby

            I know we claim we did not use white phosphorous as a chemical weapon. those claims are clearly a lie.

            you know about that right?


            I am suggesting that since we have used chemical weapons to kill middle easterners and we have signed a treaty agreeing to not use chemical weapons we don’t really have a leg to stand on to “punish” a non-signatory.
            we were wrong to invade Iraq. I would like to not repeat that mistake.

          • Barton Nicholls

            Perhaps you can speak to the Israel in relation to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Left unsaid in this debate is the fact that while they signed it they never ratified it. So in effect they have not signed on. They have, as the CIA believes, been producing and stock piling persistent and non persistent CW since the 1960s. Now it is reasonable that they want to keep a balance against states such as Syria that continue to have them, but the reverse can reasonably be said that the Syrians are keeping theirs so long as Israel has theirs. A region wide disarmament is what needs to happen. Anything else would be an unreasonable tipping of the balance of power.

          • fun bobby

            if we are going to solve this problem with violence lets do it once and for all by turning the entire region to glass. no half measures. I bet we could do so in such a way as to preserve the oil beneath. otherwise we should do what we can diplomatically or just leave the whole thing alone. as far as I am concerned isreal is a thorn in our side

  • fun bobby

    that picture is interesting, I wonder what Kerry is not saying

  • Barry Kort

    As I see it, this is not a referendum on who released the chemical agents. As I see it, this is a referendum on whether or not the US subscribes to and adheres to the protocols of the scientific method when examining evidence to sort among all conceivable hypotheses (including the Null Hypothesis) to explain an anomalous observation.

    All Mr. Kerry has done so far is to falsify the Null Hypothesis. He has convinced everyone that there really was a release of chemical agents in the suburbs of Damascus; it was definitely not a Hollywood movie stunt faking the story of civilians succumbing to some mysterious deadly agent.

    As a (now retired) scientist and science educator, I watched closely to see how well Mr. Kerry adhered to the protocols of the scientific method to ensure that the hypothesis he put forward a week ago Friday was the sole surviving hypothesis after rigorously undertaking to falsify each and every conceivable hypothesis on the table.

    I was frankly alarmed and chagrined to observe that Mr. Kerry substantially departed from the protocols of the scientific method, in much the same way as the government had done in previous historic examples in this recurring pattern.

    Modern day humans devised the Protocols of the Scientific Method as our most reliable method for sorting out accurate hypotheses from incorrect ones. Politicians, alas, are notorious for declining to rely on the Scientific Method for drawing conclusions.

    Will this episode prove to be yet another failure of our government to arrive at the ground truth by a trustworthy method?

    Or will this episode mark an historic turning point in our methods and practices for making wise and sensible decisions?

    I fear the political operatives scripting this drama will once again go out of their way to depart from the protocols of the scientific method.

    The first duty of a scientist is to array all conceivable hypotheses and then try like the dickens to falsify each and every one of them.

    I have not yet seen any attempt to array the alternate hypotheses or to falsify the one that the Obama administration (and the Military-Industrial Complex) favors.

    And so the meta-question stands before us. We have the Null Hypothesis and the Working Hypothesis, and the challenge to falsify either of them.

    H₀ (Null Hypothesis) – The US rigorously adheres to the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

    H₁ (Working Hypothesis) – The US routinely departs from the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

    This episode now in play will help determine which of the two hypotheses best characterizes the practices of our national governance model and methodology.

    I am frankly not sanguine about the outcome of this trial.

  • Adam

    As a Briton it is vital both Britain & USA stay out of Syria My country voted against Military Intervention & nothing to do with being anti-American We need to stop the Rothschild Bankers starting another War

    • fun bobby

      are the students still protesting over there?

  • ikram ali khan ghouri

    Saddam may have killed few hundred but americans have destroyed whole infra structure in Irak and killed over a million people. They were main supporter of Saddam against Iran war. The same case in Afghanistan as they have nothing to do with 9/11 except Obama refused to accept american troops in Saudi Arabia as this is against Islam. They attacked american base in Dahran, nothing else.
    Americans have only one song to kill and kill as for them is better for their defence industry who control congress and senate.