HONG KONG — The calculator busily counting out how much money the United States has spent on wars since 2001 has raced past $1 trillion — $1,024 billion plus at the start of August. There is little point in trying to give a more refined figure since the clock ticks remorselessly on, mesmerizingly faster than you can write the sum down, about $260,000 blown away in each passing minute.*
Meanwhile, the wars are being lost rather than won, U.S. and allied soldiers are dying and being maimed every day, tens and sometimes hundreds of innocent civilians are killed daily, and billions of dollars are being wasted and millions of lives being destroyed for no good reason apart from the overweening egos of politicians who are not prepared to admit that they are wrong.
The grim bottom line is that American military and foreign policy is bust and the greatest imperial power the world has ever known is failing. U.S. President Barack Obama promised to be different, but he has become trapped as a gear-lever in the same broken machine.
Release of 92,000 Afghan war documents by WikiLeaks highlighted America’s plight, even though the documents mostly confirmed things already known: The war is not going as well as Washington pretends; soldiers are killing more civilians than they admit; the Taliban possess surface to air missiles; Afghan security forces on whom Washington has lavished so much money are no match for the Taliban; and efforts to defeat the Taliban are being undermined by Pakistani intelligence providing information, money and arms to the insurgents.
The White House complained that the leaks could give aid and comfort to the enemy. However, former general and head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency Hamid Gul claimed that the release of the documents was part of a devious plot by Obama to cut his losses and retire, defeated, from Afghanistan. Gul claims that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is a “war against Muslims.”
It is not just a question of money going down the drain, though at a time of economic hardship, governments are irresponsible being so profligate. A trillion dollars could pay for gasoline for all American drivers for more than two years, or give every household two state- of-the-art 73-inch televisions, or buy 5.5 million typical American homes or 40.8 million new Volkswagens.
More to the point, a trillion dollars would pay for the Afghan budget for 303 years or give every Afghan, man, woman and child $35,000 each, or provide enough money for each Afghan to live at present low levels of income for 77 years — or only 44 years adjusted for purchasing power parity.
Last month saw former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix giving evidence in London declaring that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal and that President George W. Bush and his advisers were “high on military” and “they felt that they could get away with it, and therefore it was desirable.” If only Blix had had the courage to say that back in 2003.
South Korea and the U.S. have also been playing war games and taunting their military might in front of North Korea, to the concern of Beijing. Behind the scenes Washington has been trying to make sanctions against Iran, North Korea and other rogue states effective.
The lesson that it seems impossible for Washington and the West to accept is that weapons and war rarely settle anything. Hosts of thinkers and advocates of peace from Jesuit antinuclear campaigner Father John Dear, Martin Luther King Junior and Mohandas Gandhi to Jesus Christ have made the point down the centuries.
Eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have left at least 910,000 people dead, or more than 303 times those killed in the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks on the U.S., created a fragile and corrupt Iraq and a still failing Afghanistan, which will fall into the hands of the Taliban soon after the U.S. leaves.
The U.S. is also failing in its peaceful diplomatic attempts to pressure rogue states to behave properly. North Korea, Iran and Myanmar, to mention only the Asian three, continue to thumb their noses at Washington. Few experts expect new sanctions against Iran to have much impact on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and they may allow the Ahmedinejad government to blame and suppress opponents for any hardships that ordinary Iranians suffer. India, the heralded world’s largest democracy, played host to Myanmar’s Gen. Than Shwe just before it welcomed the United Kingdom’s David Cameron, and allowed the dictator to play his game of playing India against China and both against the West.
It is unfair to blame Washington or the West alone for the failure to create a more civilized and safer world. All politicians, especially China’s, cynically think short-term advantage without a care for the fate of the world. Beijing is a prime backer of and supplier of aid and weapons to Pakistan. China is also an ambivalent supporter of the latest sanctions against Iran. “We can no longer be friends, but we are still friendly to Iran,” as one Chinese official put it.
And as for North Korea, Beijing’s pussyfooting, whether out of cynicism or loyalty to communist comrades or fears that the country will crumble, has made a mockery of sanctions and encouraged Pyongyang to seek potentially explosive stronger ties with Iran and Myanmar.
There is no easy way out. When he was on the campaign trail, Obama promised to be different and to cut through old shibboleths and seek new engagement with friends and enemies. Is it too late for the old Obama to be reinvigorated?
Even so, that will not be enough. Asian allies are needed to convince China to take a longer and more farsighted view that can see that we all live together on this fragile Earth and that the prosperity and well-being of us all is bound up with the prosperity of the poorest inhabitant.
Once upon a time, some of us had high hopes that Japan, with its unique experience as a once imperial power that had suffered from nuclear weapons, might show the way to a saner more pacific world. But alas, Japan’s politicians live in their own make-believe world, denying the atrocities of the past and refusing to face the perils of the future.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media, a consortium of journalists dedicated to issues of global economic development. *Instant calculations at costofwar.com. These are direct costs only; indirect costs will probably double any figure.