The Costs of War

— Bush asserted tonight that “Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country.” If so, he knows something the rest of us don’t.

As I’ve said before, I eagerly welcome Hussein’s overthrow and the liberation of the Iraqi people. And I eagerly welcome Mugabe’s overthrow and the liberation of the Zimbabwean people. And I eagerly welcome the overthrow of Kim Jong Il and the liberation of the North Korean people. And I eagerly await the overthrow of . . .

In response to the request for an estimate of the cost of the war, Bush punted. He either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to say what the cost to American taxpayers is likely to be. He seems to say (it’s not really clear to me exactly what he was saying) that it’s very expensive to get attacked. But it makes sense to include this in the calculation of cost only if an attack is likely, and, again, he has given us no reason to believe that it is. Bush’s vagueness on the exact nature of the threat, the bumbling way in which he brought the possibility of being attacked it into the question of cost, and the way he quickly moved off this line of thought suggests that he knows that it’s not really a relevant consideration.

However, when he moved on to his next line of thought, there was a contrasting sincerity that indicated a conviction of relevance to the question of cost. Bush says:

How do you measure the benefit of freedom in Iraq? I guess if you’re an Iraqi citizen, you could measure it by being able to express your mind. Though how do you measure the consequence of taking a dictator out of power who has tried to invade Kuwait? Or somebody who may some day decide to lob a weapon of mass destruction on Israel, how would you weigh the cost of that? Those are immeasurable costs. And I weigh those very seriously in terms of the dollar amount.

This is conceptually garbled in a manner characteristic of the extemporaneous Bush. (It was clear listening live that he meant “Those are immeasurable benefits.“) I’m not sure how he thinks the benefits of deposing Hussein can be quantified so as to be included in a calculation of the “dollar amount” cost of the war. But that’s hardly the point. The point is that Bush more or less dismisses the question of the the cost of the war to US citizens by citing the benefits to Iraqis, Kuwaitis, and Israelis.

Certainly all of us wish nothing but the best for the Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Israelis, and every other soul on God’s Green Earth. But Bush is the US President, and it’s his job to protect the interests of US citizens. It’s frustrating to get evasive allusions to a threat to US interests, and then receive earnest and heartfelt explanations of the benefits to the interests of others.

There are billions of people around the globe who are suffering badly, and we could ease immense amounts of grief by spending hundreds of billions of US dollars. But it is not the place of the US president to distribute the wealth of the US citizens for the improvement of the lives of people elsewhere (when plumping for a tax cut, he’s very happy to remind us that it is our money). Because of the principle of diminishing marginal utility, a transfer of billions of American dollars to the world’s poor might increase net well-being, and in this sense “cost” nothing.

But imagine if someone asked Bush “How much is this global wealth transfer program going to cost us?” only to receive the reply, “How do you measure the benefit of eating to Ethiopians?” We would not be impressed.

So what exactly is the threat? How exactly are US interests endangered?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center