We Cannot Afford a War with Iran

The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani constitutes a dangerous escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran. Foreign policy wonks will debate the relative merits of the targeted killing for years: Soleimani was a brutal operative with a lot of blood on his hands, including American blood. But as a matter of pure realpolitik, it’s not at all clear that assassinating him actually prevented any further Iranian attacks on American positions in Iraq. As a matter of law, killing him without notifying, much less gaining the approval of Congress, is extremely questionable. From a military and diplomatic standpoint, it puts the world on the brink of a disastrous conflict we can ill afford. The Iranian government will almost certainly escalate violence in response as a matter of pride and principle. To make matters even worse, we can’t expect the reckless Trump administration to respond with intelligence or forbearance.

The most frustrating part is that we didn’t need to get to this point. The Obama administration won a hard-fought nuclear deal with Iran that built a groundwork for diplomacy and peace. The Trump administration stupidly tossed all that aside for reasons that appear to be a combination of petty resentment of Mr. Obama himself, jingoistic posturing machismo, and imperialistic ambitions. Now a president whose sole redeeming quality was not embroiling the United States in yet another war in the Middle East appears poised to do exactly that, whether as an intentional wag-the-dog distraction in an election year (and during his impeachment), or a matter of simple bumbling incompetence.

But since it is an election year where competing budget and policy proposals are the subject of endless debates and discussion, we should also talk about the cost of this potential conflict. War and peace are never light subject matters, and the prospect of armed conflict makes all secondary considerations seem like childishness or moral cowardice. But it does matter.

The architects of the invasion of Iraq assured the American public that it would be a quick and cheap war. Instead, the cost of our cumulative wars in the Middle East likely exceeds a whopping $6 trillion by now, with nearly $3 trillion of that spent in Iraq. A war with Iran would almost certainly cost many trillions more; and who knows how many lives?

The mere prospect of the wealthiest country in the history of the human race squandering its money in this way is a moral outrage dwarfed only by the horrors of war itself. We know that just $300 billion would go a long way toward mitigating the climate crisis. Eliminating all student loan debt would cost around $1.6 trillion (though that overstates the case due to the enormous economic stimulus that doing so would provide). We could end world hunger for just $30 billion a year by some estimates. Universal Pre-K? $140 billion a year—and again, that would have gigantic economic stimulus benefits. And so on.

These sound like big numbers when mentioned in a domestic policy debate. Journalists demand—and politicians provide—detailed plans for how to pay for big proposals.

But for some reason, we are allowing one of the least responsible and most reckless administrations in U.S. history to assassinate foreign officials without Congressional approval. Even worse, Trump carried out this action in a manner that could easily draw us into a long-lasting conflict costing many trillions of dollars, and we are barely even having a conversation about cost. This is madness.

The world is literally burning. People are dying without healthcare, homelessness is spiking, and people are facing exorbitant education, housing and others costs. We are constantly told that there isn’t enough money to pay for big structural fixes to these issues. We spend months debating the funding details for all of them, and then after the election, centrist Senators grimly intone about the deficit as an excuse to vote no on anything that does more than nibble around the edges of these problems.

But for some reason, this logic never seems to apply to matters of war. That needs to change. The stakes are too high in both blood and treasure.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.