America’s costly war machine

Fighting the war on terror compromises the economy now and threatens it in the future.

By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

September 18, 2011

Ten years into the war on terror, the U.S. has largely succeeded in its attempts to destabilize Al Qaeda and eliminate its leaders. But the cost has been enormous, and our decisions about how to finance it have profoundly damaged the U.S. economy.

Many of these costs were unnecessary. We chose to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with a small, all-volunteer force, and we supplemented the military presence with a heavy reliance on civilian contractors. These decisions not only placed enormous strain on the troops but dramatically pushed up costs. Recent congressional investigations have shown that roughly 1 of every 4 dollars spent on wartime contracting was wasted or misspent.

To date, the United States has spent more than $2.5 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon spending spree that accompanied it and a battery of new homeland security measures instituted after Sept. 11.

How have we paid for this? Entirely through borrowing. Spending on the wars and on added security at home has accounted for more than one-quarter of the total increase in U.S. government debt since 2001. And not only did we fail to pay as we went for the wars, the George W. Bush administration also successfully pushed to cut taxes in 2001 and again in 2003, which added further to the debt. This toxic combination of lower revenues and higher spending has brought the country to its current political stalemate.

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