Tim Fernholz and Jim Tankersley
Friday, May 6, 2011
As we mark Osama bin Laden’s death, what’s striking is how much he cost our nation—and how little we’ve gained from our fight against him. By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.
What do we have to show for that tab? Two wars that continue to occupy 150,000 troops and tie up a quarter of our defense budget; a bloated homeland-security apparatus that has at times pushed the bounds of civil liberty; soaring oil prices partially attributable to the global war on bin Laden’s terrorist network; and a chunk of our mounting national debt, which threatens to hobble the economy unless lawmakers compromise on an unprecedented deficit-reduction deal.
All of that has not given us, at least not yet, anything close to the social or economic advancements produced by the battles against America’s costliest past enemies. Defeating the Confederate army brought the end of slavery and a wave of standardization—in railroad gauges and shoe sizes, for example—that paved the way for a truly national economy. Vanquishing Adolf Hitler ended the Great Depression and ushered in a period of booming prosperity and hegemony. Even the massive military escalation that marked the Cold War standoff against Joseph Stalin and his Russian successors produced landmark technological breakthroughs that revolutionized the economy.
U.S. military spending totaled nearly $19 trillion throughout the four-plus decades of Cold War that ensued, as the nation escalated an arms race with the Soviet Union. Such a huge infusion of cash for weapons research spilled over to revolutionize civilian life, yielding quantum leaps in supercomputing and satellite technology, not to mention the advent of the Internet.
Unlike any of those conflicts, the wars we are fighting today were kick-started by a single man. While it is hard to imagine World War II without Hitler, that conflict pitted nations against each other. (Anyway, much of the cost to the United States came from the war in the Pacific.) And it’s absurd to pin the Civil War, World War I, or the Cold War on any single individual. Bin Laden’s mystique (and his place on the FBI’s most-wanted list) made him—and the wars he drew us into—unique.
This article was posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm