A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq on Sept. 23, 2014.
Shawn Nickel/U.S. Air Force/Handout/Reuters

Freedom isn’t free; neither are wars

When it comes to U.S. military strikes on terrorist targets in Syria, there are some foundational questions that should remain at the heart of the debate. As Rachel noted on the show this week, these are the kind of questions that should serve as a foundation going forward: Will the military offensive work? How will the world react? How will Syria react? What are the risks to civilians? And is the mission itself legal?
From there, we can move to second-tier questions. Here’s one: how much will this new war cost?
The United States launched nearly 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Islamic militant targets in Syria on Tuesday, each of which cost about $1.5 million to replace.
The military also used F-22s, F-16s and B-1 bombers to pound Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions, which cost between $20,000 and $65,000 per flying hour.
The figures highlight how President Obama’s campaign against the terrorist network will have high fiscal costs for the nation, even as the bills from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars fade from memory.
The Hill’s report said the air campaign on ISIS targets in Iraq, which started six weeks ago, cost about $7.5 million per day. Depending on the scope of the mission in Syria, that daily price tag can be expected to grow.
The same article quoted American University professor Gordon Adams, a top OMB official in the Clinton administration, saying the campaign could cost roughly $20 billion a year, though he added that’s a conservative estimate.
Let’s stipulate that I haven’t seen independent verification of any of these costs – the Pentagon hasn’t shared much in the way of budgetary estimates – and I can’t say with certainty whether The Hill’s cost assessments are correct. Indeed, if memory serves, every preliminary price tag applied to every recent military campaign turned out to be wrong.
But for the sake of conversation, let’s say these numbers are about right. At what point do congressional Republicans say, “We better start cutting food stamps to pay for this thing”?
I’m being facetious, of course – Congress could cut food stamps to zero and it wouldn’t be enough to finance a war – but in recent years, congressional Republicans have been adamant about finding spending offsets before approving even modest expenditures.
There’s a natural disaster and a struggling American community? Congress could respond, the GOP replies, but only if Democrats cut spending elsewhere. American infrastructure is in desperate need of investments? Congress could act, Republicans respond, but it won’t because the United States is “broke.”
But Republican priorities are a funny thing. When there are domestic priorities, GOP lawmakers close the national wallet, insisting that those rascally Democrats are going to bankrupt the country and crush the hopes of America’s grandchildren. When there’s a war, GOP lawmakers suddenly come to the conclusion that money – or more accurately, missiles – grow on trees, and spending constraints are wholly unnecessary.
What we’re left with is a group of congressional Republicans who don’t want to debate the mission, don’t seem eager to authorize the mission, and they don’t have any interest in paying for the mission.
In theory, Republicans could surprise everyone, coming back during the lame-duck session with a plan to raise taxes in order to finance a war against Islamic State terrorists, but that seems about as likely as Republicans electing me as their next Speaker of the House.
We’ve all heard the rhetoric that comprises our often-incoherent fiscal debate. There’s a “debt crisis.” We’re “becoming Greece.” If we don’t slash spending, we’ll be ruined.
Let’s pause to remember that the right has never actually believed any of this, which is why none of this rhetoric will be uttered from conservatives during the fight against ISIS.