The War as Investment

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Imagine you picked up the newspaper one morning and read that the supposedly unbeatable investment fund safeguarding your retirement savings was a pyramid scheme, that the fund managers' preening assurances of low risk were lies, that their investment strategies were colossally flawed, and that your money was gone with nothing to show for it. What would you do? Would you do as the fund managers suggest and send them yet more money, perhaps your child's college savings, hoping for a miracle before the grand jury convened? Or would you run for the exit as fast as you could, salvaging whatever pennies remained?

Not really much of a decision, is it? No one in their right mind would continue investing in a red-ink scheme marred by hubris, error and fraud, would they?

Of course not... Unless that investment is called Iraq, where good money follows bad no matter how dismal the prospectus.

In a sane world, at least some of our national leaders and pundits would see to it that this massive, speculative and risky investment we call the Iraq War received at least the same cost-benefit analysis we'd give a new mutual fund or a stock tip or an email from the son of the late Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko offering astonishing returns on a few simple bank transfers. You'd think someone in power might suggest we take a hard-nosed, fiscally conservative look at the costs and benefits of investing further, as well as consider alternative, potentially more profitable investments for our tax dollars. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, given just how colossally wrong the war supporters have been about everything from Saddam's non-existent nukes to the flower showers that were supposed to greet our troops, but you'd be wrong: This essential, commonsense analysis is entirely and bizarrely missing from our national discourse about the war, as it has been from the very start.

What we have instead is a lot of posturing about patriotism, democracy agendas, how "they" hate us for our freedoms, denouncement of's freedom to criticize a general whose name rhymes with "betray us," and the need to give meaning to the lives already sacrificed by... sacrificing more lives. Such expressions of sentimentality, partisanship, ego and ignorance masquerade as analysis, but serve only to obscure the real bottom line questions that our Congress, president and media elite studiously avoid, namely: Are we receiving a sufficient return on our Iraq investment? And if not, why are we still cutting checks?

And just to be sure we know what we're talking about here, the investment to date has exceeded 3,800 American lives, 200,000 Iraqi lives, and $450 billion (with another $125 billion added for the companion war in Afghanistan). That investment has brought us no measurable returns (except for negative ones) in terms of what should be our bottom line: increased national security, increased energy security, increased economic security.

If that level of investment with nothing to show for it sounds staggering, grab onto something quick: We're on target right now, without any further debate, to double down, and possibly triple down, that investment. That's right: According to current projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (widely ignored in media reports about the war), dollar costs of the current Iraq and Afghanistan war plan will rise to somewhere between $1 and $1.4 trillion before the last soldier comes home... ten years from now.

Let's set aside the question of whether the Iraq War can be rightly compared to a pyramid scheme, because even if the war's conception were entirely on the up and up (which most non-delusional Americans now understand it was not), the question still remains: How can this president, this Congress and this country embark on and continue such an immense investment with no serious, rational, informed debate over its costs versus its benefits?

The absurdity of this omission was hit home this past week in two ways. There was the scathing and unprecedented public assessment from the former top commander of troops in Iraq, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, who described the current war strategy as a "catastrophic failure" and the war itself as "a nightmare with no end in sight." Makes you really want to dump more money into that investment, doesn't it?

The second absurdity came when President Bush vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have expanded subsidized health benefits to 4 million uninsured children who are not covered by current government programs. Bush asserted his veto of a five-year, $25 billion appropriation for these uninsured kids was an act of fiscal responsibility. And he even kept a straight face as he simultaneously demanded yet another $190 billion investment in a war effort now costing taxpayers $12 billion a month ($400 million a day, $16.7 million an hour, $287,000 a minute).

What Bush was actually saying with his veto pen was that two more months of improvised explosive devices, flag-draped coffins, Blackwater scandals, and phony "secure" market scenes staged for flak-jacketed network anchors are more important than making sure every child in America has quality health care.

This sort of comparison this is exactly how we should weigh our investment in war -- as a money pit sucking away resources that we could be investing in something that might actually make America better and stronger. And this begs the larger question of what other alternative investments, costs and benefits we could be choosing but are not even talking about. A trillion and a half dollars, after all, isn't exactly chump change.

We are, in fact, spending enough money on this war to do just about everything this country so desperately needs doing, if Congress had the gumption to just say no. Consider this alternative investment portfolio:

* Restore the G.I. Bill. Modern America was built on the back of the original GI Bill, which provided home ownership and free college degrees for the Greatest Generation. Current benefits, however, are a stab in the back to our troops, who are being cheated out of meaningful educational and mortgage benefits by a paltry law and dirty tricks -- such as the recent pullout of 2,600 Minnesota National Guardsman after 729 days in Iraq, exactly one day short of earning full GI Bill college benefits. A mere $10 billion, equivalent to less than one month of war, could make sure every veteran who has served any length of time since the year 2000 could get a free ride to any college that accepted them, and a direct home loan from Uncle Sam with no money down once they graduate. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is pushing legislation that would vastly improve the GI Bill. Now it's time to really support the troops.
* Make college affordable again for the rest of us. Tuition costs have accelerated at a far great pace than either personal income or inflation, and what was once a virtual middle class entitlement is now slipping out of reach for many families. About $35 billion (less than three months in Iraq) in direct additional aid to state universities and colleges for the sole purpose of tuition reduction would enable most to reduce the cost of attendance by half or more. Consider it a sound investment in the future: Every dollar invested by the World War II-era GI bill in college education for young men and women netted a $7 return to the economy.
* Fix health care. Under President Clinton, a revamped government-run health care program became a model of efficiency, cost control, patient satisfaction and medical excellence that beat the private sector on every measure. Believe it or not, this medical miracle was called the VA, which by 1998 had become a model for what single-payer care could accomplish. Bush's government-can-do-nothing-right crowd destroyed the evidence with cuts, cronyism and deliberate underestimates of war casualty numbers -- one of the great untold scandals of this presidency. But the Clinton VA model proved affordable health care for all can be achieved in the US. Conversion costs from our current broken system could easily require a $200 billion upfront investment, but the savings from a VA-style national HMO that finally reined in out-of-control consumer medical costs- the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in America -- would pay for itself over and over.
* Energy Independence. Convert no less that 50 million homes to solar power within a decade, our generation's version of Kennedy's ten-year moon challenge. Creating quasi-public solar panel manufacturing plants -- treating solar energy as a non-profit -- would jumpstart what is currently a niche industry. Economies of scale would then cut in half current solar installation costs of $11,500 per average home (after tax breaks), and government backed loans and rebates would cover the rest. Investment Cost: $300 billion, plus another $50 billion for solar tax incentives for businesses. Investment return: Going solar on that scale would significantly cut U.S. fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on Middle Eastern oil, not to mention catapulting the U.S. to the forefront of the growth industry of the century, sustainable energy.
* Global Warming Smackdown: Create a crash program to put plug-in electrical cars and hydrogen-powered vehicles (and hydrogen fueling stations) in a position of market dominance over the next ten years. A non-profit, quasi-public network of hydrogen fueling stations must be constructed, making hydrogen vehicles practical for long-haul driving, while the solar home initiative would free up enough electrical generation capacity to power up plug-in vehicles for urban transit. Cost: $200 billion for R&D, $150 billion for hydrogen fueling network startup. Generous tax incentives for vehicle manufacturers (and consumers) who toe the green line, and severe tax penalties for those who continue to guzzle would close the deal. Benefits: say goodbye to petroleum financed terrorism, predatory multinational energy conglomerates, catastrophic global warming (if we're not too late), and place the U.S. auto industry once again at the top of the heap.

So there you have it. For less than the $1 trillion dollars that Iraq is going to cost us in the future, we could make a huge investment with returns that would measurably outstrip what we spend: Supporting our military, educating the next generation, achieving affordable universal health care, breaking our addiction to Mideast oil, decisively combating global warming, and making America the world leader in green energy and transit technology.

Or we could continue paying for the nightmarish pyramid scheme our current leaders and all but a couple presidential wannabes still embrace, investing in a war launched at the wrong time for the wrong reasons against the wrong enemy with the wrong expectations and no measurable pay-off for that half trillion dollars down the tubes and the trillion more yet to be spent. Sadly, at least for now, that check's still in the mail.

Edward Humes is the author of Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream and Monkey Girl. He is at work on a new book about environmental philanthropy and activism. More information at