The Corner

Paying for the War in Syria

CNN had a story today showing that some in Washington are making the case that an intervention in Syria would require boosting defense spending or putting an end to the sequester.

Wars, no matter what form they take, cost money. In this case, the theory is that if the intervention in Syria is limited, the cost would be limited too. According to Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former Defense official in the Clinton administration, “This would come in under $100 million, if it goes off as advertised.” According to USA Today:

The mostly likely scenario for a punitive strike on Syria: land-attack cruise missiles launched from five U.S. Navy destroyers cruising in the eastern Mediterranean. That attack would be in response to a chemical weapon attack that the Obama administration says killed 1,400 civilians, including 429 children.

Each of those sophisticated missiles, which fly as far as 1,000 miles, evade radar and explode within feet of their targets, costing about $1.1 million, according to the Navy. The destroyers generally carry dozens of them, Adams said.

“The ships, missiles and salaries are already paid for,” Adams said. “There may be an incremental cost in the tens of millions for operating the ships outside their routine operating schedule.”

If that it is the case, it certainly doesn’t require rolling back the sequestration cuts to the defense budget. Either way, I think it is wrong for members of Congress to exploit the situation to pursue more spending on defense, spending that they wanted in the first place.

However, while I trust Mr. Gordon’s estimate, there is a chance that the war will take a form much different than the one advertised. In addition, I would be careful with whatever estimate the administration comes up with. There is a tendency shared by all administrations to underestimate the cost of wars. Here is a reminder:

The Bush administration estimated the war would cost $50 to $60 billion, including the costs of reconstruction and clean up. As of 2013, the Cost of War Project estimates the war has cost $1.7 trillion—nearly 30 times the pre-war estimate. That cost doesn’t factor in future costs of veterans’ care, which push the total to more than $2.1 trillion. The Veterans Administration spending related to Iraq—which totals $45 billion—is almost as much as the Bush administration’s overall cost estimate.

Then the question is how much is this really going to cost? Unfortunately, I suspect that just like no one had any idea how costly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be, no one really knows how this intervention will play out nor how much it would cost (not to mention what it would really achieve). In particular, it is likely that the war won’t go as advertised because some Republicans have already said that they will only support the administration if this small first step is part of a much bigger strategy for military intervention.

The second important question is how are we going to pay for it? Whether the intervention costs a little or a lot of money, we cannot afford to commit to an intervention without having a plan to pay for it. If some in Washington feel that an intervention in Syria is key to U.S. national-security interests, then they should identify lower-priorities that the Pentagon should put on the back burner to make space for this new one. That means identifying lower-priority spending items to cut to pay for this intervention. An alternative would be to make the case for a war tax.

Either way, those who are now talking about going to war should also be talking about how to pay for it. 

Finally, I really wish fiscally conservative lawmakers had closed the emergency-spending loophole in the last few years.




Veronique de Rugy — Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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