9/11 and the U.S. debt

Maybe we shouldn’t have borrowed to finance our wars

If you want to understand why the United States is $14 trillion in debt, you need to look at how we responded to the attacks on 9/11 a decade ago this week.

First, we invaded Afghanistan, beginning a war that continues to this day. Then, contrary to international law, President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, a nation that had not provoked us, on the false premise that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were allied and that the latter possessed weapons of mass destruction. The president said it would cost no more than $60 billion.

When Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes calculated America’s war costs three years ago, the figure was $3 trillion to $5 trillion. That doesn’t include future disability and health-care costs for wounded veterans estimated at $600 billion to $900 billion.

And, for the first time in U.S. history, we paid for our wars entirely on credit, thanks to the tax cuts for the wealthy Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 and 2003. The money to pay for the wars simply wasn’t there.

Ten years ago, the U.S. government was $6.1 trillion in debt. Today we’re at crisis levels. That’s in large part due to the fact that we responded as we did to the attacks of 9/11.

The human costs of our wars have been even higher—nearly 7,000 American soldiers are dead, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are dead, some 1.8 million Iraqis are refugees, and another 1.7 million have been internally displaced.

We’ve learned some hard lessons in these 10 years. The Obama administration’s highly moderated—and, at $1 billion, relatively inexpensive—participation in NATO’s air campaign in Libya is an example of the new reality.

The debt crisis is forcing us to look far more closely at military funding. We simply cannot go on spending more than all other nations combined spend.