08/29/2005 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Weighing the Costs, Making the Tradeoffs

Whirlpool tub in a sumptuous master bath or another bedroom? A larger, more spacious automobile or a smaller one that is more energy efficient? We make these sorts of tradeoffs and many others all the time. In fact, since no one has unlimited resources, every purchase involves some degree of trading off this vs. that.

Even if, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, you “think you’ll buy you a football team,” you still have to decide which one or whether you really want a football team or, say, a basketball team. Sometimes, though, others make tradeoff decisions for us, perhaps without even giving us a straight presentation on the pros and cons. Take the war in Iraq. Many experts predicted that the war would cost, well, something more along the lines of what it appears it will cost, and others forecasted much higher troop levels would be required. Yes, I know hindsight is 20/20, but let us take a look at some of the tradeoffs that an accurate presentation would have put before us. As we work through the list, ask yourself this question: the war in Iraq or __________ (fill in the blank with appropriate item)?

Current spending levels planned through the end of September will put the price tag at about $200 billion, expenditures as of today, August 29, are just under 200 billion. So, we could have (for details, go here or here):

  • paid for over 25 million children to attend head start, or
  • insured over 114 million children, or
  • hired over 3.3 million extra teachers, or
  • provided four year scholarships for nearly 10 million students, or
  • built an additional 1.7 million low-cost housing units, or
  • fully funded global anti-hunger programs for over 7 years, or
  • fully funded global AIDS programs for almost 20 years, or
  • provided basic immunizations for every child in the world for over 63 years, or
  • provide health care for over 46 million people, or
  • built over 24 thousand new schools, or
  • hired over 4.6 million additional public safety officers, or
  • equipped over 360 million homes for renewable electric energy, or
  • insured more than an additional 20 million households, or
  • given about $1800 to every household in America.

Of course, you could mix and match to make your own smorgasbord of items that you think would represent an exemplary use of $200 billion. Interestingly, the UN has estimated that all the hungry in the world could be fed for $40 billion. Do you ever wonder how much the ability of evil men to recruit folks to do their dirty work would be undermined by such a global initiative? Of course, this list of tradeoffs is bogus; $200 billion is only the direct costs of war. What value do we put on the nearly 2,000 soldiers killed? the 100,000 plus Iraqis? the on-going cost to care for the 15 or so thousand injured?

Over the last few weeks, many of the war’s strongest supporters have gotten increasingly shrill, charging those of us opposed to the war with undermining our troops and worse. But, don’t be too harsh on them–with facts like these, it’s hard to sell a war on the facts, and know that you cannot genuinely support someone by avoiding the truth. Just keep asking: 2,000 soldiers killed, 100,000 plus Iraqis killed, 15,000 soldiers wounded, all of the tradeoffs listed above foregone, and what do we have to show for it? A constitution that enshrines Islamic law and a likelihood that Iraq will end up closely aligned with Iran? Increasing numbers of Americans are beginning to see that the war has not made us safer, and foreign policy experts have expressed similar sentiments. Many said so before the war. Finally, from a Christian perspective, as I noted in a post last week, there are, broadly speaking, two positions generally taken with regard to war. One is Christian pacifism, which argues that non-violent resistance is the only course one may take,. The other is just war theory, and for just war proponents one of the first judgments that has to be made, even before going to war, regards the likelihood of success. In other words, even if one has just cause and right intentions, one still must consider the long term likelihood of success. This conversation was given short shrift (or no shrift at all) prior to the war. But, now the question seems to be coming up more and more–what are we there to accomplish? And what is the likelihood that we can succeed? An aphorism from Proverbs reminds us that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Even though we did not get them before, we need sober assessments with realistic plans on how to proceed. It seems increasingly likely that our misadventure in Iraq has led to circumstances that will take longer to fix than they have taken to create, but the path forward begins with at least enough humility to recognize past mistakes, a spirit willing to learn from them, and a plan that does not duplicate them. I suspect Americans would unite behind such a plan. Who will lead us?

As always, my colleagues and I invite you to join us here for dialogue.