Matt Yglesias posted something this morning about research by Linda Bilmes that shows that the total cost of of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is up to $6 trillion and that we haven’t even paid for most of it yet. That’s not exactly news: five years ago, Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War about the Iraq War alone. But it got me think about these wars in a slightly different way: what are the opportunity and other hidden costs of these wars?
I don’t think that either of these wars made us safer. Let’s look back on 9/11 itself. Osama bin Laden’s main excuse for going to war with the United States was our military bases in Saudi Arabia. Guess what? Bin Laden won! In 2003, we dismantled our bases and removed all of our troops. That’s something to think about for the frat boys dancing in the streets over bin Laden’s death: a little backwater terrorist group got the United States to make a major policy change.
After 9/11, the only bright spot I could imagine was that all of the worldwide goodwill that we received could have been used to finally force a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. I really think there would have been enough pressure to get that done. Of course, we didn’t even try. And despite what all of the supposed defenders of Israel claim, this conflict makes Israel less safe because it provides a bright example to those who wish to claim that Israel is invalid. I believe if we had solved that problem we would have sent the entire region on a new (and better) trajectory.
So there’s that. I can’t even imagine how many trillions of dollars that would have been worth. But instead of working to make the Middle East better, we did all we could to make it worse. Now our Secretary of State has to fly to Iraq to try to convince them maybe they shouldn’t help Iran ship weapons to the Syrian government. And somehow, I think that we could have avoiding killing bin Laden for ten years without ever going to war in Afghanistan.
So 12 years on, what do we have. Lots of money wasted. Lots of lives wasted. Lots of goodwill trampled into the mud as though it meant nothing to us. But most of all: lost opportunities. Gone forever. And what did we get in return? A bunch of testosterone cases got to feel like real men. For a while.