In good economic times and bad, there’s always money for war.
Recently, political analyst Paul Waldman made a list of U.S. military actions since 1964. Excluding proxy wars, drone strikes, and covert operations, he nevertheless counted 15 significant, direct interventions since 1964. That comes, roughly, to one every three and a half years.
While American politicians like to see each such operation as a rare and unique event, the rest of the world can’t help but notice a trend. As Waldman wrote, “Nearly every American president eventually lets the bombs fall.”
The occasion for his tally was President Obama’s preparation for a missile attack in Syria. By the time you read this, it is very likely that the U.S. will have struck. Criticisms that the action will do little to constrain the murderous Assad regime—and that it could lead to a counterproductive escalation of the civil war—will be well-rehearsed by then.
But another point is less often raised: namely, that even amid a fierce climate of austerity and severe cuts to government programs, America’s ability to pay for this military operation was never an important part of the debate.
Of course, Pentagon spending has a history of dodging the fluctuations of the business cycle, whether through appeals to patriotism or outright misrepresentation of the price of war.
In selling the Iraq War to a recession-battered American public, the George W. Bush administration suggested that the invasion and reconstruction would cost between $50 and $60 billion. At the time, one economic adviser to the White House, Larry Lindsey, was foolish enough to tell the press that the actual number might be as high as $200 billion. Lindsey was promptly fired.
His imprudent leak turned out to be a dramatic underestimate. To date, still-mounting appropriations for the Iraq War have totaled more than $750 billion. When Harvard professor Linda Bilmes and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote a bestseller that detailed additional hidden costs—such as interest payments on expanded U.S. debt and the long-term price of providing health care to wounded veterans—they titled their book The Three Trillion Dollar War.
Next to that figure, an attack on Syria is expected to be rather inexpensive. Then again, at $1.1 million per shot, Tomahawk missiles don’t come free.
Moreover, the intervention gives militarists an opportunity to reverse Pentagon belt-tightening, which was imposed in the past year as part of an across-the-board cut to government spending. While Republicans have shown little interest in restoring, say, after-school educational programs, they are clamoring to get military funding back to record levels. As Obama sought to rally support for action, CNN reported that “conservatives are signaling their price for support may be increased funding for a shrinking military budget.”
With the attack on Syria looming, Republican Congressman Buck McKeon argued, “We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with… cuts hanging over their heads,” and, “We have to take care of our own people first.”
Given that conservatives believe corporations count as “people,” it’s reasonable to wonder whether McKeon has in mind such individuals as Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor that happens to be his top campaign contributor.
Arguing against the wastefulness of military budgeting does not require embracing an isolationism that sees all spending on international affairs as illegitimate. True concern for Assad’s victims, for example, demands that the U.S. join the international community in funding humanitarian efforts for the more than one million refugees fleeing Syria.
But there is something uniquely disturbing about an industry that not only has incentive to push for war as part of its business plan, but also possesses the lobbying power to move lawmakers who might otherwise object to White House designs.
Nearly every American president eventually lets the bombs fall. And they have plenty of support from those who make the bombs.