In the name of the fight against terrorism, the United States is currently waging “credit-card wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Never before has this country relied so heavily on deficit spending to pay for its conflicts. The consequences are expected to be ruinous for the long-term fiscal health of the United States, but they go far beyond the economic. Massive levels of war-related debt will have lasting repercussions of all sorts. One potentially devastating effect, a new study finds, will be more societal inequality.
In other words, the staggering costs of the longest war in American history—almost 17 years running, since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001—are being deferred to the future. In the process, the government is contributing to this country’s skyrocketing income inequality.
Since 9/11, the United States has spent $5.6 trillion on its war on terror, according to the Costs of War Project, which I co-direct, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. This is a far higher number than the Pentagon’s $1.5 trillion estimate, which only counts expenses for what are known as “overseas contingency operations,” or OCO—that is, a pot of supplemental money, outside the regular annual budget, dedicated to funding wartime operations. The $5.6 trillion figure, on the other hand, includes not just what the United States has spent on overseas military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, but also portions of Homeland Security spending related to counterterrorism on American soil, and future obligations to care for wounded or traumatized post-9/11 military veterans. The financial burden of the post-9/11 wars across the Greater Middle East—and still spreading, through Africa and other regions—is far larger than most Americans recognize.
During prior wars, the United States adjusted its budget accordingly by, among other options, raising taxes to pay for its conflicts. Not so since 2001, when President George W. Bush launched the “Global War on Terror.” Instead, the country has accumulated a staggering amount of debt. Even if Washington stopped spending on its wars tomorrow, it will still, thanks to those conflicts, owe more than $8 trillion in interest alone by the 2050s.