As these things go, the early days of the U.S. intervention in Libya have been a costly undertaking, as might be expected when U.S. forces are launching cruise missiles at Libyan targets at more than $1 million a pop. Costs for the first day surely exceeded $100 million. By comparison, the annual costs for the no-fly zone over Iraq were on the order of $1 billion per year. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has suggested that the Libyan intervention could "easily pass the $1 billion mark on this operation, regardless of how well things go."
Only in Washington would $1 billion be considered a minor cost. But, in the context of annual military spending of more than $700 billion per year (more than $1 trillion if all security-related costs are included), it is a relatively modest sum. Among other reasons, this is why we should be wary of arguments by analysts like Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute that the Libyan intervention somehow proves that we should increase a military budget that is already at a post-World War II record.
As the Sustainable Defense Task Force -- a group of more than a dozen defense experts of which I am a member -- has documented, it is possible to cut nearly $1 trillion from the Pentagon's base budget over the next decade without touching the funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Measures that can be taken include eliminating unnecessary and overpriced weapons systems like the V-22 Osprey, cutting troops in Europe and Asia by one-third, reforming military health care to provide modest increases in fees for retirees, and scaling back a Navy that is currently larger than the next 13 in the world combined, 11 of which belong to our allies. Spending a billion dollars in Libya doesn't change that equation.
If anything, the air strikes against Libya make the case for lower military budgets. It is a short-term action, with limited objectives, and with a plan to hand over the lead role to U.S. allies. This is a far cry from the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which together have incurred budgetary costs of more than $1 trillion over the past decade. And as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted in a recent speech at West Point, "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."
Furthermore, Libya is an exception. The most effective U.S. response to the democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa will be diplomatic, not military. And in many cases the ability of the United States to influence events will be limited, regardless of how much we spend on tanks, fighter planes and aircraft carriers.
William Hartung is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books).