America’s Unpaid for Wars


open-mic-1.jpgEvery once in a while, prominent people say things they don’t think will be heard. Apparently, President Obama went off on the Republicans, John Boehner and Paul Ryan when a mic was open that he didn’t know about.
I actually think Obama’s comments were juicy and terrific — mostly on the mark and sincere.
I particularly like this part of the Obama clip on Paul Ryan and the “two wars that were unpaid for” that Ryan voted for:

When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure… he’s just being America’s accountant and trying to be responsible– this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill–but wasn’t paid for.

It is good for President Obama to remind people that the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and now the Libya War are not being offset by either tax increases or cuts in spending. These very expensive wars are nonetheless undermining the economic solvency of the country.
In the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush got Japan to send the U.S. a check for $13 billion to pay for that war — which actually resulted in a small profit. Wars shouldn’t be run for profits, but wars should not be pursued without a more serious study of the economic vulnerabilities they create.
— Steve Clemons


16 comments on “America’s Unpaid for Wars

  1. JohnH says:

    Strangely, the best the CIA can do is publish a 2005 “estimate” of US military spending in its World Factbook! Guess they couldn’t find anything more recent! And I guess they recognize that US military expenditures contained in the federal budget are only a rough approximation, since DOD has never been able to pass an audit. And that military spending is buried in places they can’t even find!


  2. Don Bacon says:

    Speaking of China, it has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile which, at a fraction of the cost, makes $10B aircraft carriers obsolete. So monetary expenditures have little relevance to military effectiveness.
    Therefore I have no objection to looking at relative expenditures to indicate waste, I do have an objection to your “The current spending needs to come down to 4% of GDP from the 6% being spent now” as being meaningless, unless you go with China’s 1.5% and then my ears would perk up.


  3. non-hater says:

    “Why relate military spending to GDP at a time when no country’s military on earth threatens the U.S” – DonB
    Because using percentages of GDP is the easiest way to do international comparisons, and it’s the easiest way to do longitudinal comparisons in one country, and people get distracted by exact dollar amounts. Knowing that the US spends over 4% of GDP and China spends around 1.5% helps explain why they are building out a national high-speed rail system and the US isn’t without getting in the minutiae of PPP conversions or the quality of the F-15 vs. the JH-7.


  4. questions says:

    SMA (!),
    I think maybe what we’re doing in Libya is trying to keep the Arab spring alive so that they do the work of post colonial and post Cold War reform without our having to referee the mess from on the ground.
    I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of sense to do it this way. I don’t even know if it’s possible to help revolutions and regime change from the fringes. We’re not consistent, clearly, and we might be trying the impossible. But in terms of cost, it’s likely cheaper to get rid of thugs from the air than it is to get rid of them the way we got rid of Saddam Hussein. And it might be cheaper to do it this week only!
    There’s always the question of why we need to get rid of these thugs in the first place….
    My offhand guess is that it saves the future from more attacks, more uncertainty, more disaster. And because of the current contagion of Arab spring movements, there’s likely some hope that the energy that the citizens of these countries have, the youth bulge, and some weapons and a few bombs from on high might be just enough to allow for legitimacy, fresh starts all around, and real stability rather than the fake kind that thugocracies provide.
    It’s a gamble. It’s a gamble with other people’s lives. It’s a gamble with the future. It’s a gamble with fundamantalism and the very different temperament and preferences of the youth movement. It’s a country-by-country gamble. It’s a hope that there are people on the ground who might manage. It’s a wing and a prayer that our analysts have anything right at all. I appreciate the work analysts do, but there may simply be epistemic limits.
    Cousin Matilda, the chief source regarding conditions in Libya is a little blind, a little deaf, a little old school, but she makes great cookies and her best friend’s old boyfriend worked for someone who once knew the guy who worked on the cars that were used to transport Qaddafi’s tomatoes. I do hope we have better sources than this. Occasionally, I worry. I really do.


  5. SoapyMouthedAmerican says:

    “I actually think Obama’s comments were juicy and terrific — mostly on the mark and sincere”
    You and Dan oughta get together and have a seance. Perhaps join hands and engage in some mutual ooohhhhmmmming. Any luck, the Easter Bunny will show up and sign autographs.
    Do you REALLY think this man is capable of sincerity???? And if so, whats to admire about a man that is sincere only when he thinks the mic is turned off?
    Are we so sure that Obama didn’t know the mic was on? Theres more than one way to posture insincerely to the masses. And Obama is a master at it.
    “In the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush got Japan to send the U.S. a check for $13 billion to pay for that war — which actually resulted in a small profit”
    A few hundred thousand dead Iraqis would tend to disagree. Particularly those 500,000 dead children that “profited” from the subsequent sanctions.
    But, hey, at least the wink and a nod we gave Hussein to go into Kuwait turned a profit for SOMEONE, even if it was the most despicable segment of our manufacturing sector.
    Interesting, though, that you would consider the Gulf War as “profitable”. It actually layed the groundwork for the clusterf…., (Uh, oops), for the costly debacle the Monkey Boy, (uuuhm, uh, sorry), I mean President Bush, the junior, launched with a campaign of bullsh….., oh, darn, golly gee willickers, (can I say that???), I mean, uh, a campaign of blatant propaganda, trumped up intelligence, and shameless fear mongering.
    Separating the Gulf war from the decade later invasion of Iraq is a bit of a stretch. Considering that the sanctions and no fly zones imposed after the Gulf War were in fact an extension of the Gulf War, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi non-combatant deaths, it can be argued that the Gulf War, the subsequent sanctions, and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was in fact one single policy, not three separate ones.
    And, uh, I’m just a little curious. If our saintly one in the Oval Office is so judgemental about Ryan’s support for “unpaid for wars”, then what the —- (use your imagination) are we doin’ in Libya?


  6. Don Bacon says:

    The “handoff to NATO” was bogus and changed nothing except some meaningless legalities. It was a de jure NATO operation from the start, except that General Ham, CINC AFRICOM, was put in charge, and mostly U.S. aircraft were used de facto. The subsequent “handoff” merely involved handing the baton to US Admiral Stavrides, who has NATO credentials, and his staff.
    I doubt that the people being bombed in this humanitarian[sic] exercise ever noticed the difference.


  7. DonS says:

    OLC notwithstanding — we know by now they provide cover for whatever extraconstitutional activities the Pres decides to engage in — the facts on Lybia glare: Obama said it would be “days, not weeks” ( a month ago – funny how war isn’t neatly predictable).
    Obama will surely use the hand off to NATO to reinforce the claim that the US is not directly involved in Lybia. How very low this once shining prince [to some] has fallen.


  8. Don Bacon says:

    re: OLC
    1. The president has no such constitutional power. The constitution merely states that: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” That’s it. He’s the top military officer, nothing more.
    2. The UNSC has no authority under the UN Charter to initiate military action against a member state due to an internal conflict, so the “responsibility to preserve the Council


  9. DonS says:

    There are [at least] two perspectives and sets of questions with regard to security/defense spending:
    1- Is the discussion reasonable within the context of policy, programs and budgeting that have evolved over decades of republican and democratic administrations?
    2- Is the discussion reasonable within an environment that acknowledges that US defense posture, policy and programs are not driven by actual need, i.e., that the environment surrounding defense/security budgets is artificially created and maintained.
    Final question: why are there no figures in power willing to note the prevailing situation for what it is, cruel insanity? And how has the US gotten itself in the position where the ‘masters of war’ are indeed in charge?


  10. DakotabornKansan says:

    Link to The Cost of


  11. DakotabornKansan says:

    Not only America’s unpaid for wars, but also the cost of empty words


  12. Paul Norheim says:

    They’ll have noe problem defending the military spending, Don – ’cause here we go again:
    “Al-Qaida’s deputy leader called on Muslim nations to fight the United States and NATO if their forces enter the
    country in a video released on Thursday. The video was recorded before international airstrikes began in Libya.
    Ayman al-Zawahri also called on Muslim nations to fight the forces of Moammar Gadhafi. (…) In the recording
    posted on militant Internet forums Thursday, al-Zawahri said neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, in
    particular, should rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Gadhafi and the rest of NATO.” (from Haaretz today)


  13. Don Bacon says:

    Why relate military spending to GDP at a time when no country’s military on earth threatens the U.S., and the over-hyped terror threat can best be countered with effective intelligence and police work, whereas kinetic military activities only worsen the small terror threat that does exist, and this at a time when the funds are more usefully applied elsewhere than on a military that isn’t required?


  14. non-hater says:

    JohnH – current security spending (DoD + State and International + DHS + 2/3 of DoE) adds up to about $900B. Legacy spending (VA + a slice of net interest on the debt) adds on another $200B or more. The current spending needs to come down to 4% of GDP from the 6% being spent now, with the military consuming no more than 2.5% of GDP.
    A sortable list of military spending (NB the dollar figure is probably using the exchange rate not PPP conversion) is at:


  15. Don Bacon says:

    Obama the hypocrite
    Obama, 2002
    Obama on 2002 Iraq resolution vote: ‘What would I have done? I don’t know:’ “When asked about Senators Kerry and Edwards’ votes on the Iraq war, Obama said, “I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,” Mr. Obama said. “What would I have done? I don’t know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.” [New York Times, 07/26/04]
    Obama, 2003
    Upon arriving in the Senate, Sen. Obama supported every funding bill for Iraq, some $300 billion


  16. JohnH says:

    Kudos to Steve for acknowledging the role America’s unpaid wars play in the budget deficit.
    But it’s not just war spending. The problem is uncontrolled and unaccountable military spending.
    “Defense” spending increased from $294 Billion in 2000 to $750 Billion in 2011, an annual increase of over 9%. And that doesn’t even include Homeland Security or defense related spending, which are buried in other budget categories. Total “security spending” is more like $1-1.3 Trillion, depending on who’s counting.
    Back in 2000, “defense” spending accounted for 14% of total federal expenditures. Now it accounts for over 20%. Total “security spending” is already about a third of federal spending and is rising fast.
    In fact, if we experience another 11 years like the last 11, military spending will account for more than half of federal spending.
    Yet our esteemed political leadership prefers to bury the whole issue. After all, people might get upset if they knew that their Social Security and Medicare are likely to be sacrificed on the altar of pointless militarism: a war in Iraq that yielded little but a $Trillion of debt, another war in Afghanistan that is going down the same path, a third war in Libya, 11 redundant aircraft carrier battle groups, and at least 750 military bases serving ill-defined purposes.


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