This March 19th marked the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War, a debacle so enormous one would have thought its consequences larger here at home. Waged under false pretenses, the war against Iraq destabilized the region and dramatically eroded the United States’ influence and standing in the world, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, where it was seen as part of a campaign of aggression against Muslim countries.
The war devastated Iraq, exacting a heavy toll in death and destruction and creating three million refugees. A new study released by Brown University’s Costs of War Project reports the war killed 176,000 to 189,000 people, of whom 134,000 were Iraqi civilians, and has so far cost the United States $1.7 trillion. Add in future medical and disability payments to veterans, and the study estimates the war will cost the United States close to $2.2 trillion. Add in interest payments on the war debt through 2053, and the price tag rises to $4.4 trillion.
These costs have at least temporarily dampened the appetite for military adventurism in this country, though not entirely. Some of the same people who agitated for war against Iraq continue to have a forum and now promote war against Iran. The perverse hostility to Chuck Hagel from his own party during his confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense stemmed partly from his criticisms of the Iraq War, partly from his challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy regarding support for Israel and the need to impose draconian sanctions on Iran in Israel’s defense. The economic war now being waged against Iran calls to mind the ruinous sanctions imposed on Iraq between the first and second Persian Gulf War. The eagerness of some members of Congress to involve the United States in the tar baby that is Syria is even more astounding. Iraq remains such a mess that one would think Congress would be wary of diving into yet another Mideast conflict, especially one likely to be ugly for a very long time.
In mid-March the Pentagon announced plans to expand missile defense along the Pacific Coast. This is to show the North Koreans that we are not to be messed with, to show the South Koreans and Japanese that we will protect them and to show the Chinese that they should rein in their erratic ally. The New York Times article reporting the expansion of the U.S. ballistic missile defense observes that U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that North Korea is not close to being able to execute a nuclear strike and is unlikely even to try. It also notes their missiles are only 50 percent accurate. The estimated cost of this agonistic display is $1 billion. Given the size of the deficit, this is peanuts, of course. Still, as the saying goes, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
One positive effect of the sequestration created by the impasse over the looming deficit is that the Defense Department is being cut back and this year faces deeper cuts than domestic programs. With military bases and defense projects scattered across the United States to keep everyone united about their necessity, the Defense Department has been an impregnable bastion of vast prodigal spending. Waste on a small scale arouses the ire of ordinary people and Congress alike. Waste on a monumental scale goes by the name “keeping America strong.” Since the United States spends more on defense than the expenditures of the next top-spending 17 countries combined, we can safely assume that the United States is, hands down, the muscle man of the world. Grotesquely so, in fact.
The opportunity if not to starve some of the sacred cows in the U.S. budget then at least to reduce them is the silver lining to sequestration. But pro-Israeli lobbyists and other special interest groups are clamoring to be exempted from the across-the-board budget cuts.
The United States doles out more than $3 billion in aid to Israel every year for the privilege of funding an occupation that everyone else in the world regards as immoral, illegal and provocative and then seeing Israel snub the U.S. request to cease building Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This is a “special relationship” one would think we could do without. At the very least, one might think it would lead us to wonder why we should expect China to be able to control its errant client state when we cannot control ours.