The opportunity cost of war

Among the responses to this post on the costs and benefits of the Iraq war, quite a few commenters doubted that it was reasonable to express the opportunity cost of war in terms of the alternative of an allocation to foreign aid.

This NY Times editorial refers to the fact that the main EU nations have finally made a serious commitment to increase overseas development aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP, a target that’s been around for a long time, but never reached. The US currently gives about 0.2 per cent, and an increase to 0.7 per cent would cost around $50 billion per year, which is pretty close to the annual cost of the Iraq war effort. It’s the one major country that’s holding out against making any sort of commitment.

Of course, it might be said that Americans, unlike the citizens of other developed countries, are prepared to pay to kill people, but not to help them, so the opportunity cost calculation is still irrelevant. Apart from being closely akin to the slur that Arabs are incapable of handling democracy, this runs up against the problem that many Americans support the view that the US government should give large amounts of foreign aid, well in excess of 0.7 per cent of GDP. The problem is that they imagine that the government is actually doing this on a still more lavish scale. On average, Americans think that 24 per cent of US government expenditure is allocated to foreign aid – the true figure is 1 per cent.

A more plausible objection is that it’s possible to do both. The UK was part of the Iraq war (though its contribution, in relative terms was much smaller than that of the US) and it has committed itself to meet the 0.7 per cent goal. To this my response is, let the US make a substantial commitment on aid first, and then it will be time to recalculate the opportunity costs of war.

UpdateHere’s a US criticism of aid in general

46 thoughts on “The opportunity cost of war

  1. From your link, MB, the position taken by Kouchner seems less pro-war than you indicate

    Most recently, Kouchner has stepped up to the platform on his opinions of the Iraq War. When most of his fellow Frenchmen were against the idea of entering, he supported it. “Saddam Hussein was perhaps the most bloodthirsty dictator after Hitler and Stalin,” Kouchner said. “We can defend the oil of Kuwait, but not the people of Iraq.” (International Herald Tribune). However, in a press conference of last year, he continued to say that now the focus should be on the actual people themselves, and that they are the only ones that can say yes or no to war. At the meeting, two Iraqi expatriates were there. One thanked him, saying that what he said was true. The other said his, “no to Saddam, no to warâ€? was no stance at all, and that he could not have it both ways.

    Homer, I think you’re conceding unnecessary ground on Ukraine and Kyryzstan. There’s no evidence Iraq had anything to do with either and in fact, by emboldening Putin, it has had some effects in the opposite direction.

  2. If you must cite 1920s British involvement in Iraq as a comparison, you should also examine 1930s dyarchy approaches. The legitimacy of US involvement from the ’50s on is undercut by the fact that they stopped that evolutionary improvement in its tracks as part of a misguided sense of how to wind back imperialism.

  3. John, I’ll concede (reading a few other of his comments) that Kouchner’s position on Iraq is somewhat more nuanced than I implied. Very interesting guy though.

  4. This is an post I wrote on my blog – it has relevance if you think the invasion has produced good results.

    The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq has only lead to more instability in the region. Read this quote from an article from the Washington Post as confirmation. link

    “This is a government that will have very good relations with Iran. The Kurdish victory reinforces this conclusion. Talabani is very close to Tehran,” said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraq. “In terms of regional geopolitics, this is not the outcome that the United States was hoping for.”

    Added Rami Khouri, Arab analyst and editor of Beirut’s Daily Star: “The idea that the United States would get a quick, stable, prosperous, pro-American and pro-Israel Iraq has not happened. Most of the neoconservative assumptions about what would happen have proven false.”

    The results have long-term implications. For decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations played Baghdad and Tehran off each other to ensure neither became a regional giant threatening or dominant over U.S. allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms.

    But now, Cole said, Iraq and Iran are likely to take similar positions on many issues, from oil prices to U.S. policy on Iran. “If the United States had decided three years ago to bomb Iran, it would have produced joy in Baghdad,” he added. “Now it might produce strong protests from Baghdad.”

    I guess that they can say “It seemed like a good idea at the time”.

    The decision to invade Iraq will go down in history with Hitler’s invasion of Russia – A total and unmitigated disaster that proved the downfall of the invading country. As if Vietnam was not enough. Imagine how devastated the military leaders of the USA are after recovering the Army from the disaster in Vietnam and rebuilding an Army second to none with high moral, only to have it squandered in an operation that was doomed from the start. Imagine how the people in the State department feel after carefully maintaining the status-quo in the middle east only to have a bunch of amateur buffoons come in and invade a county to turn it over the the largest enemy power, Iran, in a ‘democratic’ election.

    Now how is the US going to deal with this? Is it as the world champion of demaocracy and peace going to leave Iraq to sort out its own problems and destiny – NO WAY. How is this for horrifying? This quote from this article.

    To head off this threat of a Shi’ite clergy-driven religious movement, the US has, according to Asia Times Online investigations,resolved to arm small militias backed by US troops and entrenched in the population to “nip the evil in the bud”.

    Asia Times Online has learned that in a highly clandestine operation, the US has procured Pakistan-manufactured weapons, including rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, ammunition, rockets and other light weaponry. Consignments have been loaded in bulk onto US military cargo aircraft at Chaklala airbase in the past few weeks. The aircraft arrived from and departed for Iraq.

    The US-armed and supported militias in the south will comprise former members of the Ba’ath Party, which has already split into three factions, only one of which is pro-Saddam Hussein. They would be expected to receive assistance from pro-US interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord.

    A military analyst familiar with strategic and proxy operations commented that there is a specific reason behind procuring arms from Pakistan, rather than acquiring US-made ones.

    “A similar strategy was adopted in Afghanistan during the initial few years of the anti-USSR resistance [the early 1980s] movement where guerrillas were supplied with Chinese-made AK-47 rifles [which were procured by Pakistan with US money], Egyptian and German-made G-3 rifles. Similarly, other arms, like anti-aircraft guns, short-range missiles and mortars, were also procured by the US from different countries and supplied to Pakistan, which handed them over to the guerrillas,” the analyst maintained.

    The obvious reason for this tactic is to give the impression that the resistance acquired its arms and ammunition from different channels and from different countries – and anywhere other than the United States.

    This is utter lunacy and repeats the human disasters in Central America. If this source is true then how can the US be the champions of peace . Apparently it is conspiring with the very people it claimed it was invading to overthrow!!!!!!!!

  5. Ender, to equate Iraq with vietnam or US interventions in Central America is just plain silly.

  6. Iraq and other military commitments aside, it seems the National Missile Defence Program, which the Federation of American Scientists seems to believe is ill-conceived, technologically unfeasible ( and morally bankrupt is one area where choices about huge expenditures are still available. We’re looking at a program that is at present soaking up $US50 billion a year. It seems difficult to believe the money wouldn’t be better spent eradicating malaria or providing drinking water to the third world. Such aid expenditure might also have the ancillary advantage of refuting the notion at present impelling those prospective recruits into the ranks of terrorists that the US is in some way an arrogant, greedy imperial power. Military expenditures seem to fail on that front every time, for some reason.

    Meanwhile, the argument that aid is always pernicious, a favorite of Helen Hughes, begs the question – if aid is pernicious, then the plunder/enslavement etc that characterised imperial powers’ interaction with said third world must have been beneficial! Strangely, this argument doesn’t appear to blend well with common sense. Although doubtless there will be those that will argue the slave trade benefitted economies of both the ‘donor’ and slave-owning nations. I’ve read enough of this blog now to be sure there’ll be those who would run even that line!

  7. Hal9000, you appear to have bought into the US stereotype of what imperialism was. As much as anything, that was what imperialism displaced – although that kind of damage was also done by Europeans. For an example, see how these days the Belgians get the blame for what King Leopold did in the Congo Free State. It usually isn’t appreciated that the intervention of Belgium proper put an end to those things, or that simply backing off wasn’t an option as it would have given the Arab raiders a free hand.

    There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, but perhaps here and now aren’t the place and time for it.

    P.S., the very beginning of African slavery saved the lives of male captives who would otherwise have been discarded as a bycatch from the domestic slave trade.

  8. michael.burgess
    “Ender, to equate Iraq with vietnam or US interventions in Central America is just plain silly.”

    You may say it is silly however a lot of people are doing it.

    First of all how stupid would you have to be if you thought that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with WMDs – none were found.

    Second how bad does a dictator have to be before the US invades. Or does the dictator also have to have lots of oil.

  9. Ender, Firstly anyone who claims to support social justice should at least consider the value of removing SH by force whatever the reasons given. Basically people like you hate the likes of John Howard more than you do dictators. Second, WMDs might not have been found but SH had them before (ask the Kurds) was given many years to disarm, and had every intention of acquiring them in the future. The claim that the whole think was a lie because no wmds existed is a bigger lie than anything fib Bush etc have told.

  10. Oh yes, the 0.7% of GDP target. Posted on that back in January, did a bit of number crunching there. I remember that if Australia was to be involved in the same plan it would be equal to just under $4 billion per year.

    I personally think that such a contribution should be seperate to the cost of any military action. They are two seperate things and while they may have similar effects, one should not just be substituted for the other.

  11. John, you should consider opportunity cost under the USA’s objectives. Government funded international aid is not just aimless charity, but an integral part of foreign policy. Therefore, comparing military intervention in Iraq with malaria reduction in Africa may not make much sense.

  12. Luis, what do you suggest was the strict foreign policy reason the USA has occupied Iraq? Most here have so far concluded that it was indeed a charitable action. If you continueto make such wild claims you could at least provide references.

  13. Mr Burgess
    First of all I do not hate anybody. That is a perogative of your side of the fence.

    I do not like a person that lies. JH has consistantly lied and exploited peoples fears for his political gain. A very successful strategy however but no-one really like skunks – they may respect them because of their smell but in the end they just smell bad.

    Perhaps if JH had gone into the war with the stated intention of removing SH then it would have at least been honest. Instead he went to Iraq categorically stating that regime change was not his agenda. Only when WMDs were not found was removing SH made the primary objective. He also deceived us with bogus intelligence that he forced the Australian intelligence community to produce.

    The WMDs that SH used were supplied with US know-how and directed with US satellite intelligence that he was privy to while he was mates with the US. There is a classic picture of SH and Donnie Rumsfeld shaking hands from about this time. Perhaps he was telling him not to gas Kurds then. The punishment of the crimes that SH commited were not and never were the prime objective of the neo-cons. In the end we became SH in our savagery and commited the atrocities of Abu-Graib and Fallujah. Pathetic claims of government talking heads that Australians never interrogated prisoners only interviewed them was disgusting.

    SH was given many years to disarm and he did as evidenced by results after the invasion. This was confirmed by 2 UN teams who conducted extensive surveys of Iraq before the invasion however these results were ignored. There was no need to invade – the sanctions and inspections worked.

    SH was a brutal dictator who daresay deserved exactly what he got however when you look at the pictures of Abu Graib do you really think the price was worth it. What do you say to 1500 soldiers families. There is no use getting rid of brutal dictators if we just become brutal invaders.

  14. P.M. Lawrence, I don’t think I’m buying into any stereotype of imperialism and slavery to suggest they were basically plunder operations. To point to some mitigating features is not to excuse. As the cliche goes, there’s a silver lining to every black cloud: the slaughter of the Great War was no doubt a career boost for the survivors; the savagery of the Spanish conquest of the Americas was probably beneficial for those who might otherwise have been sacrificed for Quetzalcoatl and the native Americans got their revenge by getting Europe hooked on tobacco. In the history of imperialism, plunder always preceded and trumped white man’s burden. In the case of the Congo, it was the publicity given to the macabre brutality of Leopold’s regime that forced Belgian intervention. 40 years of subsequent Belgian rule did not however leave the Congo over-burdened with capital infrastructure or an educated population.

  15. Yes, Hal9000, you are butying into a mistaken concept of imperialism. They were not basically plunder operations – they superseded those. Granted, they were also exploitative – but in a different way. Go and check the facts, for instance how the Dutch changed their ways after the British interregnum in the East Indies.

    None of this is justification, except in a lesser evil sense. It is, however, a suggestion that you sort out what you are talking about and not confuse the sheepdog with the wolf. I’m not suggesting that the dog doesn’t live off the flock, or that it isn’t rather similar in kind and orientation.

  16. “to equate Iraq with vietnam …is just plain silly.”

    Cheap shot: Yes, George Buch went to Iraq.

  17. P.M Lawrence’s defence of imperialism reminds me of Abrham Lincoln’s comment regarding slavery: “There is not a man alive but knows slavery is wrong FOR HIMSELF”. (That’s an approximate paraphrase.)

    Isn’t it strange how every nation that was ever subject to imperial control chose to reject it?

  18. Ian Gould et al – where do you get the idea that that was a defence, other than by projection and stereotyping? I’m just trying to point out that there are different sorts of things going on, that imperialism is not about plundering any more than a parasite in the business for the long haul is in the business of killing its host. I’m objecting to the stereotyping, I haven’t even described any particular feautures of empires in general or the British Empire in particular yet. But until we can clear the ground, agree on the subject matter, there’s no point.

    But I will restate the point at issue using a less emotional analogy: you can’t blame sustainable agriculture for the wastefulness of slash and burn agriculture, and until you’re willing to make the distinction you can’t sort out what you are talking about.

  19. P.M. Lawrence “Ian Gould et al – where do you get the idea that that was a defence, other than by projection and stereotyping?” Er, “the very beginning of African slavery saved the lives of male captives who would otherwise have been discarded as a bycatch from the domestic slave trade” – that’s where. If I were to make statements like “Stalin’s purges actually were a good thing in that they saved millions from being duped by Communism” or “the razing of Tokyo actually benefitted Tokyo’s citizens by enabling them to build a shiny new city, creating jobs for millions” pardon me, but I’d sound like an apologist too.

  20. Where did you get the idea that that was about imperialism? That was the 16th and maybe 17th century scenario. Imperialism was what came along in the 18th century. I thought I’d avoided that confusion by saying “the very beginning”, i.e. before the overseas slave trade started driving slave raids. It may be worth mentioning that imperialism also involved stopping the slaving at its source. For self-centred reasons among others, no doubt, but it was part of changing short term exploitation for long term exploitation.

    You are starting from your conclusions and interpreting any facts or discarding them according to how well they fit your preconceptions. But that’s just how the USA gets the idea that what it’s doing now isn’t imperialist; it just says “imperialism is when you do such and such, and this isn’t that, so it’s OK” – completely ignoring that they don’t actually know what empires were, how they tried to remain at arms length and exploit at a distance without territorial gain except as pushed into it by forward policies, the logic of empire that says you cannot stay still but must go forward or go back.

  21. P.S., “P.S.” means something else. You jumped to the conclusion that I was addressing the same point from your earlier remarks, not a separate one – even if you thought they were all part and parcel of empire.

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