We Can’t Make Strategic Defense Decisions Without More Transparency About The Costs Of War

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Bonnie Kristian Fellow, Defense Priorities
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April 24 was “Tax Freedom Day” for 2016, which means that every day from January 1 through this past Sunday the average American’s entire paycheck went to paying federal, state, and local taxes. The money we’ll earn for the rest of the year is ours to keep.

Of course, we don’t pay our taxes all in one lump sum, but that’s why the Tax Freedom Day calculation so important. It’s an accountability measure which makes glaringly obvious the full weight of our tax burden, a whopping 31 percent of national income, totaling more than we’ll collectively spend this year on food, housing, and clothing combined.

Transparency is important on the other side of the fiscal equation, too — the spending side. After all, much of what Washington does never directly affects the average American. Do you think a lot about farm subsidies if you’re not a farmer? About the Ex-Im Bank if you’re not an importer or exporter? About prescription drug regulations if you’re not a doctor?

No, for most of us, paying taxes is the closest we come to many federal projects. We may be indirectly affected, but footing the bill is our most tangible encounter with these bureaucracies and programs. That’s why it’s so vital we know how much they’re costing us.

Foreign policy is no exception to this rule, nor, in the era of a $19 trillion national debt, do Americans exempt it from our scrutiny. For example, many Americans are consistently concerned about the amount we’re spending on foreign aid (both humanitarian and military). Polls show the average U.S. citizen is more eager to cut this aid spending than any other single federal program, at least in part because they believe it eats up around 25 percent of the federal budget.

The good news is it’s actually more like 1 percent. The bad news is that this wildly inaccurate estimate is indicative of how poorly Washington keeps Americans informed about the financial costs of its foreign policy proposals.

But that information is vital for us to be able to make prudent, strategic defense choices which protect both our national and fiscal security.

These two securities are more closely tied than you might think, as Ret. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been arguing for years. “We just can’t be the country that we’re capable of … if we keep spending ourselves into oblivion,” Mullen explains. He considers the national debt the single greatest threat to American security, and insists — though most of Washington seems to have no interest in listening — that if we keep spending like this we “won’t be able to make the investments” we need for an effective, agile defense.

Transparency in foreign policy spending is especially important when we need to decide whether a new war serves our national interests. Particularly when it comes to interventions — like President Obama’s failed misadventure in Libya — which are not clearly designed to defend the United States, this is a calculation which must be made: When is a war not worth it? Or, to put it another way, how much are we willing to pay to meddle in a country which affects us tangentially at best?

Indeed, research suggests that specific delineation of war taxes leads Americans to make smarter foreign policy choices. For instance, in surveys of citizens in the U.S. and U.K., a pair of political scientists from Cornell University found that people “are more willing to support their government’s military interventions if the government pays for them by borrowing instead of taxing. No longer are citizens reminded of the financial burden of conflict.”

In other words, if Americans know that they could be paying less taxes by skipping an intervention of dubious wisdom, they’re less inclined to let reckless presidents like Obama push ahead with their pet wars.

The bit about debt is important too. It’s all too easy for politicians to conceal the fact that they’re pushing the costs of an intervention off on future generations and so dupe a potentially skeptical public into accepting their foreign policy unquestioned. As Thomas Jefferson mused in a letter in 1820, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its debts as it goes — a principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars in the world.”

At present, the last decade and a half of foreign is a much larger contributor to our national debt than many realize. Remember that 25 percent estimate of our foreign aid spending? Well, the long-term costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to be around $4-6 trillion — and that’s only the spending we committed through 2013, well before ISIS was on the scene, revving up a new round of the war in Iraq. Foreign aid didn’t produce 25 percent of our $19 trillion national debt, but those two wars did.

Of course, we can’t change the past or un-spend all this money, but we can insist on far more transparency in the fiscal costs of foreign policy proposals going forward. As Jefferson knew 200 years ago and Adm. Mullen knows now, responsible spending is an inextricable part of national security.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.