As Americans struggle under the Congressional sequester, involvement in a war in Syria will cost us additional precious blood and treasure for years to come.
September 5, 2013

fists in the air

While President Obama and Congress are weighing moral imperatives, talk-or-hit strategies, US credibility issues, and whether Iraqi war ghosts really do exist, they have failed to mention what yet another “military response” in Syria is going to cost. Of course, “military response” is political packaging for “war” which, in the middle east predictably means long, bloody and expensive, no matter how modest the brown paper it’s originally wrapped in.

This at a time when millions of Americans are going to bed hungrier, colder; frightened by limited fixed incomes and the frailties of old age; less well educated and at greater risk for future impoverishment and imprisonment; less likely to keep or even find a good paying job to keep them from the void, and less likely to take the road less traveled on our crumbling infrastructure and broken paths to the future in a science and technology based economy going quiet. All in the wake of the shortsighted, selfish and cruelly cut “Sequester” which will consign millions more to the trash heap each year, well beyond its 2021 finish line.

It’s almost impossible to piece together the real financial cost to us if we enter the fray in Syria.

Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former Defense official in the Clinton administration estimates that the cost would be under $100 million “…if it goes off as advertised.” This is based on the exclusive use of Tomahawk missiles at a cost of $1.1 million per. Adams says this ordnance and the cost of operating the ships they’re launched from are already paid for, but additional tens of millions would likely be expended by taking them outside their ordinary routines.

But what happens IF/WHEN a US strike triggers a military response from Syrian President Assad and his supporters in the Hezbollah, Iran and Russia? It’s a safe bet that Assad won’t stand down after Tomahawk missiles are unleashed on the strategic sites he’s using to viciously annihilate his own people. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is aching for a fight with the US. Nations will start to take sides, the UN will have to get involved and while Secretary of State John Kerry is busy trying to talk sworn enemies down off their turrets, hostilities will escalate. It will only be a matter of time before we are involved in enforcing no-fly zones, deploying armed drones and inevitably putting “boots on the ground.” Before you know it, the 90 day limited strike just authorized by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be a distant harbinger.

We are again on the verge of war. Now how much?

Impossible to say, even among experts on the subject, given the budget complexities of an economy our size and the variables of a war waged by a mix of high-tech global superpowers and tribesmen who’ve traded rocks for rockets. But a look at what we have and will spend on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is instructive. A 2013 study by Harvard public policy Prof. Linda Bilmes estimates that the US has already spent $2 trillion dollars on those wars and that does not even account for the future costs for veterans’ medical and disability payments. These payments "come due many decades later," she said. "Payments to Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans are still climbing."

Think about that. $2 trillion. And counting. For wars from which we haven’t completely extricated ourselves, one of which was the result of a completely contrived story about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. And yet we’re being asked to trust the government--again.

The cost of this next war will figure in to the $1.2 trillion Sequester cuts. Do Congress and the White House really expect to cut more from programs that were in place to care for and help our poor, elderly, and our soldiers? From those intended to model our country as a free, prosperous, democratic beacon of hope for the future? The Sequester pain has just begun. This year, $85.4 billion has been lopped off the discretionary budget. Next year, and for each of the next 9 years until it’s over, that number jumps to $109.3 billion. There is nothing left to take. The beacon’s light is dimming.

The enormous suffering and loss of the Syrian people is not lost on us. In hindsight, we and the rest of the world sometimes waited too long before stepping in to save other people from a monster. But we are also a war weary nation struggling to keep our people adequately fed, educated and safe, in spite of a Congress that couldn’t find the political will to protect its own people from a withering Sequester though it moved quickly to pile on war costs that can only make it worse. Much as we’d like, we can’t go it alone to save everybody. There’s little incentive in a world where some of those we’ve helped say they hate us after we try. With bullet diplomacy, everyone’s a loser.

Back in 1969 during the Vietnam war, one of the most popular anti-war protest songs ever written asked and answered a simple question. “War… What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Sadly, 40 some years later, with hundreds of thousands dead and thousands of millions spent, the song doesn’t seem destined to become an “oldie” anytime soon.

Cynthia Lobo is a criminal defense attorney in New York. She has worked on high profile criminal cases, taught litigation as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC and has a popular radio talk show on She blogs at, twitter @CynthiaLobo.

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