The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, claimed 2,977 souls, not including the 19 terrorists aboard the four airplanes. A week later, the United States immediately names al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as the perpetrators of these attacks. Almost a month later and after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the United States and the United Kingdom — joined later by other countries — invade Afghanistan, driving most of the Taliban into neighboring Pakistan by December.
In the decades following, America is drawn into extended military operations of varying capacities in Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Yemen, and Jordan with no end in sight. We’ve found ourselves zealously reliant on military solutions that are quick and immediate but drain our diplomatic currency abroad long term. We operate with reckless impunity under basic notions that some lives are far more valuable than others, and no serious planning ever seems to be in place to mitigate and solve the issues that arise globally due to our presence.
Amidst all of this, President-Elect Joe Biden will take office on January 20th next year, and it’s incumbent upon him and the rest of his staff to take a hard look at the state of American foreign policy, especially with regards to the Middle East and think about how to do things differently. These last two decades of war have extracted a global cost that is hard to measure, and a great tarnishing of America’s image.
The value we ascribe to American lives.
A 2019 study, put out by Brown University’s Cost of War Project, set the total overall cost of all US obligations and engagements in the Middle East since 2001 at $6.4 trillion. Roughly, that amounts to about $340 billion a year spent for military operations in the Middle East, or alternatively, approximately $3 billion spent avenging every soul on board those airplanes and in the World Trade Center. Now, it’s important to note that there is a worthy debate as to whether or not the US would have been drawn into some of these conflicts whether 9/11 had occurred or not. Even so, the comparison is worth noting. Close to $3 billion has been spent in the name of everyone we lost on that day.
It’s worth asking what could have been funded instead with that inconceivable pot of money. While there is no direct comparison with that figure, there is plenty to work off of that can give us a sense of the scale of $6.4 trillion. The American Prospect, in the wake of the Trump tax cut for corporations, mused about what that money could have been spent on instead, saying, “If that $1.9 trillion tax cut were spent instead on infrastructure, the positive effects would ripple through the economy. Virtually all of the money would be productively spent on fixing the transportation, energy, communications, and water systems that underlie the functioning of the economy as a whole; millions of Americans would be hired for construction and factory jobs. Substantial infrastructure spending, in turn, would help reinvigorate the manufacturing sector, which is needed to produce parts and machinery for roads, bridges, and the rest of the infrastructure. It would generate new technology and tech jobs as well, just as the World War II investment boom did. Incomes of the working and middle classes would improve, leading to more balanced economic growth.”
Back in 2007, when America was just beginning to sour on the War in Iraq, David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, imagined what the then-$1.2 trillion cost of the war could have been spent on, saying that “$1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives…universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds…The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.
Someone close to me once stated that a budget is nothing more than a statement of values. This nugget has stuck with me ever since and repeatedly bounces around in my head when I see numbers like this. It’s worth noting what the US is saying abroad and at home when we have a military budget that dwarfs almost every other category of spending in our federal budget. It’s a value proposition based on what we believe should be prioritized and what we think will give us the greatest return on investment.
Compared to the value we ascribe to others.
In 2018, Brown University’s Cost of War Project put out another study that estimated, “between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” The project readily admits that even this figure is an undercount, going on to state, “This tally of the counts and estimates of direct deaths caused by war violence does not include the more than 500,000 deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011, which the US joined in August 2014,” and that, “this tally does not include ‘indirect deaths.’ Indirect harm occurs when wars’ destruction leads to long term, “indirect,” consequences for people’s health in war zones, for example because of loss of access to food, water, health facilities, electricity or other infrastructure.”
Even something as simple as measuring the amount of US soldiers who have died in the Middle East over the past two decades or calculating how many soldiers have left the military with a physical or mental health issue can be challenging. All of this requires good-data keeping from various government agencies. Nowadays, keeping accurate stats on this stuff usually falls somewhere between not being a priority and intentional obfuscation. Nevertheless, several nonprofits and other groups regularly endeavor to get as accurate a number as possible. Case in point: the Cost of War Project put out an update to its 2018 study — outlined below — that covered direct deaths in several categories over a collection of other war zones.
If we were to take the 800,000 figure from above, roughly that shakes out to about 300 deaths for every one person lost in 9/11, a statistic that’s incredibly eye-opening looking back now. The sad fact is that this is likely a conservative estimate. The real number is assuredly much higher. These studies don’t factor in the over 70 million people displaced by these wars and the millions of civilians threatened by hunger and thirst due to food and water shortages brought on by instability.
Now, some might argue that a significant portion of these death cannot be ascribed to the US for multiple reasons: multiple countries have been involved in the Middle East over the years killing people, the terrorists are the ones perpetuating the conflict, etc. That may be true, but the direct line from 9/11 to the current instability in the Middle East shines bright, and just as one can argue not all of this death is the US‘s fault, one can also argue that the Middle East would unquestionably be a much safer, less violent place had the US just stayed away.
Was this all worth it?
Ultimately, the political reality in all of this is that some version of the US going to war in the Middle East was probably inevitable. If Al Gore had been president instead of George Bush, the US still would have sought out military retribution in some form after 9/11. Everyone forgets that the months following the attack made staunch hawks out of even the most bleeding-heart liberals. The infamous 2001 Authorization For Use of Military Force (AUMF) that undergirds all of the US’s domestic authority to wage these wars passed through Congress near-universally save for one prescient vote from Rep. Barbara Lee.
Broadly speaking, it’s easy to look at these types of things with an eye-for-an-eye view of the world. We got revenge. The terrorists got what was coming to them. Sure, that may be true, but what have we left in our wake? We went far beyond compensation of equal measure. We met a horrible tragedy with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb-level response. And now, looking back, do any of us feel particularly good about this?
I submit the time has come to question whether or not the Pentagon really wants to leave the Middle East. Over the years, there has been ample opportunity for the US to reevaluate and pull back its commitments and obligations in this part of the world. Time and time again, a mixture of unwillingness, incompetence, and stubbornness from military leaders has stymied that objective. I’d imagine if you asked most people what victory in the Middle East looks like, most people would imagine a world that doesn’t involve the military at all. It’s a world where everyone gets along. Peace and stability, right? Well, to the Pentagon, that world is one where their whole reason for being is made irrelevant, and they have been charged with actively working towards their demise. Some might call that a bit of a conflict of interest, no?