How America's Wars Have Wasted Billions of Dollars and Created Piles of Debt with Little Strategic Benefit)
August 24, 2018
Jacob Heilbrunn / The National Interest & Laura Strickler and Dan De Luce / NBC News
Since the end of Bill Clinton's presidency -- when the US ran a budget surplus -- the Pentagon-driven debt level has been rising steadily. It jumped from $10.6 trillion during the George W. Bush administration and to $19.9 trillion under Barack Obama. The truth is, entanglements in foreign wars are contributing more to the national deficit than is often acknowledged. An Inspector General's report estimates that, over the course of 11 years, the US squandered $15.5 billion in Afghanistan.
How America's Wars Have Created
Piles of Debt (And Little Strategic Benefit)
America risks the return of the very fiscal
and foreign policy perils that Walter Lippmann
warned about almost a century ago
Jacob Heilbrunn / The National Interest
(August 21, 2018) -- When Defense Secretary James N. Mattis spoke at the 2018 Center for the National Interest Distinguished Service Award dinner in late July, he outlined a foreign policy strategy for the United States that focused on the resurgence of great-power competition.
Mattis also warned that the United States could endanger itself from within. Specifically, he stated that the growing national debt amounts to a form of "inter-generational theft" that Congress must address.
The solvency of the United States and the balance between commitments and power has been an abiding theme of foreign policy realists. In his book, US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, the dean of American realist thinkers, Walter Lippmann, observed in 1943:
No one would seriously suppose that he had a fiscal policy if he did not consider together expenditure and revenue, outgo and income, liabilities and assets. But in foreign relations we have habitually in our minds divorced the discussion of our war aims, our peace aims, our ideals, our interests, our commitments, from the discussion of our armaments, our strategic position, our potential allies and our probable enemies.
No policy could emerge from such a discussion. For what settles practical controversy is the knowledge that ends and means have to be balanced: an agreement has eventually to be reached when men admit that they must pay for what they want and that they must want only what they are willing to pay for.
In 1987, Samuel Huntington wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs called "Coping With the Lippmann Gap." He reiterated that America was incurring commitments abroad that it was not willing to pay for at home. Such warnings have gone largely unheeded.
Instead, since the end of the Bill Clinton presidency -- when the United States ran a budget surplus -- the debt level has been rising steadily. It jumped from $10.6 trillion during the George W. Bush administration to $19.9 trillion under Barack Obama.
Though Donald Trump said in 2017 that he would eliminate the debt "over a period of eight years," he has gone silent on the issue even as he presides over a debt that is expected to exceed $21 trillion. Goldman Sachs recently stated that the fiscal outlook for the United States is "not good" and predicts that debt as a percentage of the gross national product will rise from its current 4.1 percent to 7 percent by 2028.
If entitlement spending and unpaid tax cuts are a big part of the story of America's debt crisis, it is also the case that entanglements in wars abroad are contributing more to the national deficit than is often acknowledged.
In a fascinating new book Taxing Wars, Sarah E. Kreps, a professor of government at Cornell University, reminds us that a fundamental shift has taken place since 1945: the United States has repeatedly failed to impose war taxes and relied on borrowing to finance its foreign wars, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Her argument that deficit spending allows political leaders to muffle opposition to more limited conflicts rather than demanding fiscal sacrifices from the public rings true and it suggests that since 1945, the United States has engaged in "Hide-and-Seek" wars.
In succumbing to the temptation to conduct under-the-radar conflicts, US officials have helped to erode American democracy by evading the constraints and public pressure that would, more often than not, accompany conflict abroad.
Watchdog Says US Wasted More than
$15 Billion in Past 11 Years in Afghanistan
Special Inspector General says huge figure
may only be "a portion" of the waste
Laura Strickler and Dan De Luce / NBC News
WASHINGTON (July 25.2018) -- The watchdog charged with tracking government spending in Afghanistan has released its first estimate of the total amount of money wasted there -- a staggering $15.5 billion over 11 years -- but says even that figure is probably "only a portion."
In response to a request from three congressman in 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) began tallying the waste and fraud in the US effort to rebuild the country.
After 10 months of research, SIGAR sent a letter back to the congressmen that estimated the waste at $15.5 billion between SIGAR's inception in 2008 and Dec. 31, 2017, or 29 percent of the spending it audited. In the letter, obtained by NBC News, Special Inspector General John Sopko describes the figure as "likely . . . only a portion of the total waste, fraud, abuse and failed efforts."
One of the three congressmen who requested the calculation, Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., called Afghanistan a "black hole" for taxpayer money. "The American people deserve a better understanding of where their money is going," said Jones.
Click here to read the letter
SIGAR noted that more than $4 billion dollars intended for "stabilization programs" in Afghanistan instead led to "exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption and bolstered support for insurgents".
And the $7.3 billion spent to stem the Afghan drug trade has done very little to stop the "production and exportation of illicit drugs," according to SIGAR, which notes that opium production is now "at the highest levels since 2002."
The report comes as the Taliban has continued to gain ground on the battlefield against the US-backed Afghan government and as the Trump administration has launched a diplomatic bid to end the war.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has expressed skepticism about continuing the American troop presence in the country. The US has now had troops in Afghanistan for 17 years. Trump considered pulling out US forces in his first year in office before reluctantly agreeing to extending and expanding the mission after a protracted internal debate.
Aware of Trump's impatience with the war, US commanders and diplomats are now eager to make progress with peace talks. Officials told NBC News that the president could pull the plug on the American commitment with little notice.
During administration deliberations on the issue last year, Trump's then-chief strategist Steve Bannon favored withdrawing US troops and replacing them with private contractors. The unorthodox idea -- strongly opposed by the Pentagon -- was floated by Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm once known as Blackwater that had US government security contracts in Iraq. Prince's sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump's education secretary.
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