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What are we willing to sacrifice in war on ISIS?

A formation of US fighter aircraft flies over northern Iraq in September as part of coalition airstrikes on the Islamic State group and other targets in Syria.Associated Press/file

This week Congress took up the president’s request to use military force against the Islamic State. The president’s draft would authorize a wide-ranging effort over three years, but prohibits “enduring” ground operations. It would replace the 2002 authority for military action against Iraq, but leave untouched the sweeping 2001 law, enacted by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, to grant President George W. Bush permission to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, organizations, or persons he deemed involved in the planning or carrying out of terrorist attacks.

Inevitably, the Obama proposal is bogged down in partisan bickering; Republicans claim it is too narrow and Democrats say it is too wide and vague. More than 14 years after 9/11, with trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, what is urgently needed, and what has been absent from the debate, is a serious discussion of the big issues: How much are we willing to commit in money, national effort, and American lives in an attempt to meet this current threat?

This is an opportunity for Congress to correct past mistakes. Chief among them is the almost complete absence of accountability for where the trillions of dollars have been spent. Requiring greater transparency on war spending is a first step to exercising the checks and balances that Congress is supposed to provide. Instead, the use of "emergency supplemental appropriations'' and "overseas contingency funds" outside the regular budget process, combined with financing war spending entirely with debt, has enabled Congress to duck its responsibilities.

It's time for an adult discussion about America's role in the world. We have already been waging an air campaign against ISIS for the past six months, and the president has de facto authority to expand or alter the military strategy under the existing post-9/11 laws. The real question for Congress is whether this military action is necessary for our immediate or long-term national security, and if so, how should we pay for it? What sacrifices is the country prepared to make in other programs, including sacred cows in the defense budget, to pay for a war against ISIS?


During all previous US conflicts, Congress debated a mixture of new war taxes, specific war borrowing, and cuts to other priorities. There were trade-offs. But this time, the American public has been insulated from the harsh realities of the battlefield by a combination of an all-volunteer force as well as the massive use of private contractors to fill roles that were once performed by our armed forces. We also have been protected from the true monetary cost of the wars by historically low interest rates that have made it easy for the government to borrow money. Thus the only real financial trade-off in these wars has been between generations: how much do we pay for ourselves vs. bequeath to our children? Consequently, many of today's voters — and their congressional representatives — are disengaged and uninterested.


Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously pointed out. The best way to discourage future ground wars, and to control the escalation of warfare, is by demanding greater transparency, starting with the budget process. Obama has been among the biggest champions of transparency — except when it comes to national security. Debate about our defense strategy takes place behind closed doors among a handful of congressional and military insiders. But blanket secrecy is damaging. We have seen the consequences throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; for example, the Pentagon failing to disclose the true number of veterans wounded (resulting in a huge backlog of veterans seeking medical care and disability compensation), and rampant profiteering, fraud, and boondoggles among thousands of US military contractors. Without any mechanisms for open debate, the field is left wide open for whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden to capture the headlines and set the agenda in an uncontrolled manner.


Today the US military is critically dependent on support from the private sector for virtually every activity in its toolkit, from maintaining complex control systems for advanced weapons to interrogating prisoners. Many contracts are for technically sophisticated software systems that few if any government employees even understand. This creates huge potential for divergent interests between taxpayers and contractors. The answer is both stronger oversight and more transparency.

The president has the authority to defend American interests, by force where necessary. But the executive needs to be held accountable for those actions, and their consequences. It is understandable that Congress passed the post-9/11 authorizations with little dissent. Fourteen years later, the legislative branch should exercise its constitutional responsibility to monitor and prioritize war expenditures.

A former assistant US secretary of commerce, Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and coauthor of "The Three Trillion Dollar War.''