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Ideas | Michael A. Cohen

We poured billions into Middle Eastern wars. What if we’d spent the money differently?

ON WEDNESDAY, THE United States marked the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Actually, marked is the wrong word to use here. Ignored fits better.

President Trump made no mention of it on his Twitter feed, lest it take time away from his feud with a senator and war hero who passed away seven months ago. It was barely referenced by the news media. Even the Pentagon gave it short shrift.

Sixteen years after Americans troops crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq, a war that took the lives of more than 4,400 soldiers and left tens of thousands wounded has disappeared down the American people’s collective memory hole.


But the US decision to go to war in Iraq fundamentally altered American society — and will continue to impact Americans for decades to come.

The strategic mistakes made in the invasion of Iraq — and the larger war on terrorism — have been well chronicled.

Less appreciated, however, are the indirect costs of the conflict and, in particular, the tremendous opportunity costs that remain the war’s most enduring and damaging legacy. Money and attention spent on fighting phantom threats in the Middle East could have been spent far more effectively — not only keeping citizens safe from the domestic threats and systemic risks that actually harm them, but also helping millions of people around the world live better and happier lives.

Indeed, America’s over-reaction to 9/11 offers an object lesson in the perils — and stratospheric costs — of foreign threat inflation.

It may seem to hard to remember a decade and a half later, but in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration described the threats to America emanating from a mid-sized, largely impoverished Arab country in apocalyptic terms.

President George W. Bush said that toppling Saddam Hussein would ensure that Americans would “not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”


He and other administration officials warned of evildoers and mushroom clouds over American cities. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed there existed a “relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s.”

“The dangers to our country and the world will be overcome,” Bush solemnly declared from the Oval Office on the eve of invasion.

Those dangers did not exist.

Iraq had no weapons of mass murder. It had no links to the terrorist group responsible for the attacks of September 11th; and the US faced no grave danger from Iraq.

But just as the Bush Administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, it underplayed the ultimate costs of the decision to go to war.

Days after the invasion of Iraq had begun, and after months of purposeful opacity about the estimated price tag for the conflict, President George W. Bush presented Congress with a request for $75 billion to pay for military operations and postwar reconstruction.

Ultimately, the United States would end up spending approximately $819 billion in direct costs on the invasion, occupation, and reconstruction of Iraq. The collective direct and indirect costs of the entire global war on terror was even higher — close to $6 trillion.

And the meter continues to run.

More than 2.7 million active-duty, National Guard, and reserve troops served in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2017 and more than half were deployed more than once. These multiple deployments significantly increased the number of troops suffering from combat-related trauma. In fact, the average wounded veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan has an astounding 7.3 recognized disabilities.


Already, the annual disability compensation given to vets of the war on terrorism is $15 billion. These payments will rise exponentially over the next several decades. So too will the cost of the Pentagon’s military health programs and the financial burdens on the Veterans Administration.

While $3.3 billion was spent in 2012 for veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, demand will increase because this malady can go undiagnosed for years, with symptoms manifesting themselves decades later.

Then, there is the cost of death. The families of service members killed on active duty or from service-related injuries and those receiving VA disability benefits at the time of death are eligible for pensions of at least $1,200 a month.

As of a few years ago, more than 80 dependents were still receiving benefits connected to the Spanish-American War, which ended in 1898. In 2017, the Veterans Administration was still paying benefits to Irene Triplett, the 87-year-old daughter of a Civil War veteran.

There are the indirect costs, too. At least one-third of the federal debt accrued after 2003 is directly attributable to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But here’s another number to consider: $97 million. That’s the amount of money that Congress appropriated in 2002 to defray the costs for airlines to replace flimsy cockpit doors and simple latches with hardened, bulletproof doors.


That simple change almost certainly did more to stop another 9/11-style attack than anything done by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So too did the post-September 11th requirement that US intelligence agencies share information with each other. Had the CIA informed the FBI about the presence of al Qaeda terrorists in the United States before 9/11, the attack could possibly have been prevented.

The US military did, however, play one critically important counter-terrorism role. In the fall of 2001, US planes and a smattering of CIA operatives on the ground in Afghanistan helped rebel Afghan forces rout the ruling Taliban leadership in Kabul. Al Qaeda terrorists, including the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, escaped into Pakistan. However, this was a spent force, unable to mount major attacks on US soil.

The US war on terror should have largely ended then. The threat from international jihadist terrorism had not been fully eradicated, but it had been reduced to a nuisance; a political act depraved and sinister, but one that year-to-year kills fewer Americans than lightning strikes.

But the larger story of America’s misguided war on terror is what could have been.

A fraction of the $817 billion spent on fighting phantom threats in Iraq could have provided every American with health care coverage. Doing so would have prevented 17,000 premature deaths annually.


A third of the nearly $4 trillion spent in fighting the war on terrorism could have brought US infrastructure up to what the American Society of Civil Engineers, in 2001, considered an “acceptable level.” Instead the quality of US infrastructure would, in the years that America was spending $170 billion on reconstruction costs in Iraq, tumble from fifth to 16th on international rankings.

Far smaller sums of money could have been used to create a paid family leave program that would guarantee every American 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Grants to mental health providers or several hundred million dollars for hiring police could have reduced overall gun crimes. Tens of billions of dollars invested in drug rehabilitation programs could have nipped the worst of the opioid epidemic in the bud.

This was not unknown at the time. A congressional report from 2007, “War at Any Price? The Total Economic Costs of the War Beyond the Federal Budget,” offered a menu of alternatives for an Iraq conflict that was running a tab of $435 million every single day. The same money spent on surging 30,000 US troops to Iraq in 2007 could have added 5,500 teachers to US classrooms; enrolled 57,500 low-income children in the Head Start program; and helped 150,000 low-income students with Pell Grants.

Such investments would have spurred far greater economic growth and productivity than military spending, which provides limited benefits to the economy. By one estimate, if the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2014 had been channeled into clean-energy industries, health care, and education, 2 million more Americans would have been gainfully employed during that time period.

But it’s not just at home where this money could have been better used.

In 2002, the Bush Administration unveiled PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to help combat the global AIDS epidemic. An initial investment of $15 billion helped to avert 1.2 million deaths from HIV/AIDS in just the first four years of the program’s existence, and AIDS-related deaths fell for the next 15 years in a row.

At a cost of approximately $6.7 billion (or less than two weeks of the Iraq War at its peak spending), US aid could have helped to expand proven health programs and reduce the number of global deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea. An expenditure of $9.6 billion on maternal nutrition and mineral and vitamin supplementation could have averted the deaths of 900,000 children under five years old across the developing world.

In short, the Iraq War should be viewed as more than just a calamitous and pointless strategic disaster that did nothing to make Americans safer. It ultimately made Americans less safe and less prosperous at home, but also less respected and less of a leader abroad. In short, it must be seen as one of the greatest lost opportunities in contemporary American history.

While Americans, it seems, would prefer to put Iraq in the rearview mirror, the decision to go to war will haunt them for generations to come.

Michael A. Cohen is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Micah Zenko is a columnist for Foreign Policy. They are co-authors of the forthcoming “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans” (Yale University Press). This is an adapted excerpt from the book.