You've no doubt heard of the Stiglitz-Bilmes study putting the real cost for the Iraq war at over one trillion dollars. The report is worth a gander (not least because the authors ask that no one to quote from it without their permission). In it, the authors consider the real cost of the deaths from the war, the cost of long-term care associated with the war (including, specifically, the long-term costs of a war that results in large numbers of brain injuries), the interest on debt associated with the war, the effect of decreased security on our economy, the increased price of oil, and the dampening effect of the war on the stock market.
I'm glad folks are talking about this report. But now that we've got a figure that accounts for these related costs, I think we ought to be talking not in terms of the cost of the war, but the opportunity cost of it.
Where would we be right now if we had invested that one trillion dollars into making the US energy independent instead of going to war in Iraq?
Although Bush, the Senate, and the punditocracy never really considered it in these terms (Kerry made a feeble attempt to do so during his campaign), we made a choice when we went to war in Iraq. We chose to try to respond to some threats to our economy by going to war rather than addressing those threats in a more reasonable fashion.
For a number of reasons, it's time we reconsidered the reasons we went to war (I'm aiming to do a post on it sometime soon). But I think our conduct in the war (and our belligerence toward Iran) supports the claim that we went to war to:
- Establish a geopolitically strategic military footprint in the Middle East to replace Saudi Arabia, thereby ensuring we can protect our access to energy supplies, particularly as supplies grow increasingly scarce
- Send a message that we will attack countries that preferentially support the economic position of other countries
- Ensure that the dollar remains the default reserve currency and currency of oil transactions, thereby sustaining the unequal economic system that relies on the debt-ridden American consumer as the primary source of demand
It's too simple to say it's all about oil. But it is about the economic and strategic system which oil fuels. And don't get me wrong--our current economic system can't last much longer without doing something. The US is just too reliant on debt rather than competitiveness to retain its role in the global economy. The question is, was an invasion of Iraq the best way to address our increasing vulnerability in the world?
Frankly, I don't know. But I'd like smart people who actually have some expertise (unlike me) in economics to consider an alternative. What if, rather than going to war, we had invested that trillion dollars into an energy Manhattan Project? What if we had used that money to develop new technologies and manufacturing systems that would diminish the importance of oil in geostrategic equations and in setting the reserve currency?
I would imagine such an investment would have been a massive stimulus to our economy, creating a bunch of high-paying jobs and an economic sector where the US would be dominant internationally. I would imagine it would create technologies the US could export again--stuff other countries wanted to buy. I would imagine such an approach would minimize insecurity, one of the costs Stiglitz and Bilmes associate with the Iraq war. Like I said, I'm not really qualified to answer these questions, but I would imagine that such an approach would have gone a long way to resolve the threats that underlie our reasons for war. All without getting anyone killed.
And as an added bonus, it would have addressed some of the causes of global warming.
See, I've been saying for a while that it's not just that Bush lied us into a war and botched important parts of conducting that war. It's that Bush chose the least effective approach to respond to some threats to this country. And we'll be paying for that poor choice for quite some time.