Can the U.S. Afford Another War in Iraq?


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Bulent Gultekin and Neta Crawford on the cost of war

Few disagree that the U.S. as a superpower is fulfilling its responsibility in air strikes targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and airdropping food aid to stranded Yazidi Iraqis persecuted by the group. But some are questioning the overall human, political and social costs of such wars and the resources it takes away from the government, especially in job creation back home.

Wharton finance professor Bulent Gultekin and Boston University professor of political science Neta Crawford discussed the wisdom of the latest U.S. moves in Iraq on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. Gultekin said the U.S. must choose its battles wisely and called for an international consensus on such actions, while Crawford highlighted the cost impact of wars, especially in job creation, among other aspects. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

The response from the international community has been mixed to the U.S. actions. The United Kingdom has decided to join forces and send ground attack aircraft for reconnaissance missions, but it has not extended that to conducting air attacks. Australia will send food aid to the Yazidis, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not ruled out sending ground forces to northern Iraq, according to The Australian newspaper. U.S. military aircraft have so far delivered more than 85,000 meals and 20,000 gallons of drinking water to the Yazidis, according to a press release by the U.S. Central Command. On Tuesday, the U.S. sent an additional 130 troops to Iraq to assess the scope of the crisis.

“As a large economy and the leader of the Western world, the U.S. does have responsibilities — that comes with the territory,” Gultekin noted during his radio interview. At the same time, he argued that the U.S. erred in attacking Iraq in the first place in 2003. It botched that endeavor by not building sufficient international consensus to back its actions that eventually led to Iraq becoming “a failed state,” Gultekin added.

According to Crawford, the U.S. fights such wars at a high price. She pointed out that between the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars, the U.S. has already spent or is obligated to spend a total of $4 trillion and still counting with the latest offensive. That expense is financed with borrowed money with interest charges. “Ultimately, the borrowings to pay for the wars will cost more than what we have spent,” she added. Crawford is co-director of the Eisenhower Study Group’s “Costs of War” project, which takes into account the toll of war in human, political, social and economic terms, not just military budgets.

“Ultimately, the borrowings to pay for the wars will cost more than what we have spent.” –Neta Crawford

Gultekin pointed out that people forget another intangible cost — the time the U.S. government administration spends on issues related to military activities. “The entire Bush Administration was so focused with what was happening with Iraq that they basically lost focus on the economy. There is a very significant waste of energy that people spend on these unproductive wars.”

Wars also bring continuing costs such as caring for veterans, whose health issues get more complicated as they age, Crawford added. “I don’t think we’re as yet over yet paying for the peak expense of caring for Vietnam veterans.”

Crawford pointed to yet another casualty of military spending, which is the “opportunity cost” related to it. “Military spending is not that effective in creating jobs,” she said. “For every billion dollars you spend on the military, you [create] 11,200 jobs or so. But if you spend the same billion on clean energy, it [creates] 16,800 jobs.”

According to Gultekin, the U.S. can avoid some of those costs by getting involved in fewer military actions. “We cannot solve everyone’s problem. We need some international consensus on how to deal with these crisis issues, where to draw the line and what conflicts the U.N. and the U.S. will interfere in.”

Crawford feels that ultimately, the U.S. has to decide what kind of economic power it wants to be. “Will the United States remain a great economic power if it keeps spending so much money on the military?” she asked. While some military spending is necessary for defense, it is also meant to create an environment that is convivial to the U.S., such as in the Middle East, she noted. The U.S. might be better off if it creates that convivial environment using less aggressive means and redirecting some of the military spending to help create jobs, she argued. “It’s a choice about what kind of great power the United States wants to be.”

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Join The Discussion

4 Comments So Far

James Kent

And, we must weigh the costs, humanitarian and financial, of not acting decisively. But, I agree with Prof Crawford – what we need is a foreign policy promulgated by elected officials responsible for providing it.

Tushar Kanti Roy

Military action by USA is needed to save the people in Iraq specially the Yazidi group as echoed by UN and other big powers like Britain, Australia, Middle-east etc. At this time, the military intervention is inevitable. However, as noted by Crawford, we should understand that military intervention will not bring permanent solution as it is based on hate in some form or the other. We need to understand that hate begets hate and War begets War and hence WAR to be avoided at all cost.

Non-violence is the solution to all ills in the world which are to be practised by President and Prime Ministers around the world. It is worth mentioning about Former President of India Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan that “He is having goodwill for everybody and ill will to nobody”

The root of all wars are poverty – the soldiers of both sides who are fighting in the front mostly belong to poor, otherwise why they will go for dying. In order to have a long-terms solution to these kind of devastating war we need to wage war on POVERTY as said by many Statesman in the world. War on Poverty will not be the last resort but it has to be sincere and sustained actions led by UN and USA and getting involved all the countries all over the world and also big Corporate houses. War on poverty will create resources for poor and will generate ultimately large number of employment.

Few War mongers may benefit from War, but War on Poverty will benefit billions of poor people around the world as well it will bring a stable and prosperous world for our children that is the need of the time. In this manner we can achieve a world similar to what we see in any peaceful country which were disintegrated earlier by local lords or Kings who were fighting with each other and who were ignorant of sufferings of thousands of people.

ibsteve2u Someone who cares – to his endless regret

Can the U.S. Afford Another War in Iraq?

Personally the two wars initiated by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, & PNAC, LLP struck me as having taken affordability into consideration…but not to the advantage of the American people; rather, the goal was to use a combination of tax cuts and massive war spending to make entitlement spending unaffordable while justifying the disastrous social and economic impact with the argument that many Americans must be sacrificed at home so we could “fight them over there”.

Or, more realistically, to protect the rate of wealth accumulation of the parasitical few and in particular that few who reap massive wealth from the harvesting, refining, and distribution of – or speculation in – hydrocarbons.

I.e., the right/Republicans pursue the fiscal antithesis of democracy.

Charles Roger Fulton

After reviewing the evidence above and the podcast, and my own life experiences + my Air Force back ground, I come to the conclusion that one cannot draw together any common understanding between a Wharton group that counts the costs of bullets and dollars per dynamite sticks against those of us who see little children’s bloody heads rolling on sidewalk streets as I have. I’ve seen it. The evidence is out there. As an American I’ve been privileged to walk through Deitrich Hall and learn, to feel the greatness of a country who welcomes the weary and try to drive out the bad and angry, and who sits in jets during missions of what we feel is to accomplish good in the world. No, I believe we do good, I believe in the cavalry coming over the hill and when I see images of mothers and sons and daughters huddling in church pews over there waiting with no hope, waiting to die, I don’t give a darn about balance sheets and costs of bullets. I want jets to fire up, flush the birds, flight plans, and rescue yet again, the down trodden. If we don’t who will?