Watching cable news this summer engenders an awful sense of déjà vu. Just as we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War, retired generals and think tank experts are calling on us to take the fight to Middle Eastern thugs while news anchors nod in agreement.
Every so often, the televised calls for a more muscular policy against ISIS are interrupted by heartbreaking commercials for the Wounded Warrior Project – a charity that helps some of the 50,000 US veterans wounded during America’s 21st century battles with Islamic fundamentalists.
The talking heads and these heart-tugging commercials have a deep connection: If policymakers listen to the pundits, we could well see another stream of wounded warriors returning to our shores in the years ahead. This will not only be a tragedy for a new generation of veterans and their families – it will also impose a huge fiscal burden on a nation much less equipped to carry this weight than it was in 2003.
Back then, publicly held debt accounted for 35 percent of GDP. Today the number is 74 percent.
The most simplistic (or perhaps most deceptive) commentators suggest that it will be fairly simple for the Obama administration to polish off ISIS – a force that Stanford University said has only 12,000 fighters as of a month ago – through airstrikes and by arming rival groups. Airstrikes, whether in Iraq or Syria, will not work on their own. ISIS fighters can melt into the general population and air attacks that kill large numbers of civilians will likely increase support for their cause.
Rival groups may be too small or poorly disciplined to roll back ISIS, and they may pose problems of their own. In Syria, the strongest alternative to ISIS is the Assad government. The idea that the Free Syrian Army can take on both ISIS and the regime appears to be wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government is now allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party – which is on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, because it has “claimed tens of thousands of Turkish lives.”
Even if ISIS is defeated as an organization, its ideology will likely survive as an inspiration to restless Muslim youths both in the Middle East and the West. ISIS is just the latest manifestation of militant Sunni fundamentalism first propounded by Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s. This jihadist philosophy has inspired the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Mujahedeen who ejected the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Taliban, Hamas and al Qaeda.
ISIS is one of a number of al Qaeda affiliates and spin-offs, which, while differing on tactics, share the same desire to replace secular autocrats with the rule of Sharia Law throughout the Muslim world. Another al Qaeda spinoff in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, could be one of the beneficiaries of a U.S. campaign to degrade ISIS.
Given the impossibility of eliminating Sunni fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria, U.S. military intervention could easily morph into a prolonged, large-scale and expensive war. It is worth remembering that proponents of the 2003 Iraq War did not envision a costly, long-term occupation. For example, Kenneth Adelman predicted the invasion would be a cakewalk, while Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz suggested the war would be inexpensive and largely self-financing.
Even under a relatively cautious president, our renewed military involvement has already witnessed multiple escalations. After initially sending troops to Baghdad on June 15, President Obama ordered further deployments on June 30, August 12 and September 2.
Fear of appearing weak and criticism from domestic hawks heighten the pressure to escalate. With two American journalists now murdered by ISIS terrorists, the momentum toward escalation continues to build. It is always worth remembering that the Vietnam War started with a relatively small number of U.S. advisors and ended a decade later with 58,000 Americans dead – so we have seen this movie before.
America’s ill-considered 2003 Iraq intervention ultimately resulted in 4500 U.S. deaths and $770 billion in extra Pentagon appropriations. The ultimate budgetary cost will exceed $2 trillion when decades of veteran’s health benefits are tallied. Indeed, this year’s VA scandal is a direct byproduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Despite sharply higher appropriations, the VA bureaucracy proved incapable of keeping up with the influx of new beneficiaries and resorted to cooking the books to create the illusion that it was keeping up with the increased caseload.
While previous experience has shown that the costs of intervention can be high, the intended benefits may not materialize. Iraq has not been the only disappointment: A 13-year American military presence in Afghanistan has not eliminated the Taliban, while our intervention in Libya has produced a new failed state. ISIS is part of a much larger Jihadist movement – so even if we could eliminate this group, we will continue to live with the threat of international terrorism.
The unfortunate reality is that no policy can guarantee safety in the homeland. Terrorist plots can be hatched anywhere at any time. This is why one of the major arguments for intervention, that we have to deny terrorists a safe haven, is so specious. The 2012 Boston Marathon bombing – the worst domestic terror attack since 9/11 – was planned in Massachusetts and in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, two places not under Jihadi rule.
If we listen to the cable TV pundits, we risk losing more American lives and billions of taxpayer dollars for the unachievable goal of guaranteed security. Before issuing a blank check for endless unlimited war, Congress owes the public a thorough cost-benefit analysis of any proposed military action in Iraq and Syria.
The American people now realize that we made a serious error by intervening in Iraq back in 2003. We simply cannot afford to make a similar mistake now.
Marc Joffe is the Principal Consultant at Public Sector Credit Solutions and was previously a senior director at Moody’s Analytics.
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