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Max Fraad Wolff Headshot

A Question of Security?

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For years we have been a nation focused on security. We have not had any substantive debate about what security means. It is high time this debate was had. Economic and international security issues are likely to dominate our up-coming presidential election. I would like to suggest that we examine security more broadly. In a competitive globalized world, economic power is at least as good a mark of security as military power. Wars are very costly, even when they are won. The costs of loss are always staggering. If economic stability is worth considering, our present course is defined by growing instability. It is high time to consider if we are spending, dying and killing our way in the wrong direction. Our government budget deficits are mighty and growing. The last 5 years saw cumulative deficits of $1.6 trillion dollars. Our trade deficits are now in the range of $56-$63 billion per month. Our equity markets have underperformed internationally and the dollar has been in a downward spiral. All of these statistics might plausibly been seen as security issues.

There are many ways to evaluate US policy and action in Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terror (GWOT). One lens involves looking at the financial costs. These are not the most dramatic, immediate or personal costs of conflict. When lives are lost, shattered or violently re-routed it almost seems callous to focus on the balance sheet. As our nation slides into recession and toward the trillion dollar war tab it seems permissible to consider wars' spending.
We are presently fighting three simultaneous wars, (GWOT), Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Defense (DOD) places all spending for Iraq and Afghanistan under the umbrella of the GWOT [i]. This is a political decision that actively encourages public confusion regarding the relationship between Iraq, 9/11, Afghanistan and other operations. Iraq gets the most direct press and attention. This stems from the body count and massive cost of the conflict. Iraq receives 75 cents of every GWOT dollar. Afghanistan is also expensive and now both longer running and equally unsuccessful. The global war on terror defies categorization and has been embraced by leading political candidates of both parties as sacrosanct. I too will focus on Iraq but, feel the need to remind you that these three conflicts are all ongoing and expensive. A total absence of debate and engagement with alternative concepts of security stands as a profound counter factual to change claims from all candidates.

The endless war (on terror) and the forgotten war (Afghanistan) are very much still snuffing out lives and draining out dollars. Through year end 2007 Congress appropriated $140billion for Afghanistan and other counter terror operations. It is presently estimated that this number will grow to at least $163billion by year end 2008. If Iraq and all GWOT spending is appropriated and spent, according to plan, it will total $805.1billion by year end 2008. To give some perspective on these numbers I calculated some other things that could have been done. This $800 billion is equal to half of the total sum now required to repair America's increasingly dangerously dilapidated infrastructure. This sum is 14 times the 2008 Department of Education annual budget. We have already spent $100billion more than the forecast 2008 total spending of the Department of Health and Human Services (including Medicaid and Medicare spending). War spending exceeds the 2008 budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a factor of over 100! Our spending on the global war on terror is 96 times our projected 2008 total spending on all assistance to veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The war tab is greater than 18 times total 2008 spending on the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

What if some of us don't share the present conception of security? What if preventing epidemics of illness, neglect, home foreclosure, environmental destruction, poverty, economic stagnation and homelessness among veterans form our definition of security? If we were to judge our nation's priorities based on her spending, there is only one conclusion. Security means military victory in foreign lands, not economic growth, shared prosperity, environmental protection or basic services. We are far more committed and interested in our global terror wars than we are in fixing our critically deficient infrastructure. We are massively more concerned with wars than our children's education. We find caring for our elderly, ill and needy an impossible burden and clearly less of a priority than our terror wars. The state of our environment is either excellent, or we don't care about it all. We are minting new traumatized veterans at a fast pace but, care very little about their long-term care and welfare. We are prepared to keep asking far too much from our young men and women. In return, we feel we owe them very little. In the midst of the worst housing crisis in 75 years, we are comfortable spending 18times as much money securing our position in the world as we are spending securing our domestic housing stock and communities. I believe this is the proper context in which to consider the numbers. Our decisions hinge on what security we deem worth considering and fighting to secure.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) February 08, 2008 report, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, estimates that $526 has already been spent on Iraq with an additional $82.3 billion pending in 2008. By the time 2008 ends, five and a half years into the war, we will have spent just over $600billion on the war in Iraq. This excludes many indirect and long term costs. It means that over 5 years and nine months we will have spend an average of $8.7billion per month in Iraq. We have also spent an addition $140billion on Afghanistan and other activities with an additional $23billions pending by the end of 2008. These figures exclude at least as much as they include and would have to be doubled to begin to approximate the total long term direct and indirect costs already incurred. Of course all three conflicts continue and promise to for years.

Given the state of our national economy and the increasingly heated and high stakes debates being waged over the possible costs of various assistance programs, Iraq costs should be central in national spending debates. I am sure most of you don't need me to remind you, they are not. No candidate, for either party, has any concrete or likely plan to drastically or rapidly alter course on Iraq and GWOT policy or spending. Past hypothetical votes, rhetoric and approach vary narrowly and accept- without question- the definition of security that has been in place. Policy actions do not vary enough to radically alter the present spending forecasts. Forecasts, from the CRS report above, estimate that a rapid reduction of troops by the end of 2009 will add an additional $147billion to total costs. The more likely slower decrease to 40,000 troops by 2010 will add another $318billion in costs. The bad news seems to be we are far from even knowing the total direct costs of this very expensive conflict under the best of scenarios. None of these calculations factor rising tensions or military capability rebuilding costs. We are all set-up to expend far more of our wealth, our blood and theirs. All of this without questioning what security really is?