NYTimes: Cost of 9/11 is 3.3 Trillion Dollars

In 10th Anniversary on September 10, 2011 at 7:28 am

According to the NYTimes, who has boldly and unilaterally called the 2000s the “9/11 Decade.”:

In 2004, when he was arguably still capable of initiating another devastating attack on the United States, Osama bin Laden released a video gloating about his plan of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”

As usual, Bin Laden’s vow was overblown — but, as it turned out, not entirely crazed. A survey by The New York Times, detailed in the accompanying chart, puts a stark price tag on the cost of reacting — and overreacting — to the defining event of the past decade. America’s bill for fighting a 21st-century “asymmetric war” comes to at least $3.3 trillion. Put another way, for every dollar Al Qaeda spent to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks, the cost to the United States was an astonishing $6.6 million.

Today, Al Qaeda in Pakistan is crippled and Bin Laden is dead. But the $3.3 trillion figure suggests that the unanticipated costs of how we managed a grim decade — money already spent or committed in the future — amount to a little more than one-fifth of America’s current national debt.

Some of those were unavoidable, direct costs of responding to the attack. Some, like the Iraq war, were expenditures of choice. But there is also the more difficult, less quantifiable question of what we paid in “opportunity costs.”

Less than a trillion dollars of the $3.3 trillion was for direct responses — including toppling the Taliban. But what if at least some of the remaining $2 trillion plus had been spent on other, longer-range threats to American national security? Rebuilding a broken education system? Finding more imaginative ways to compete with China? Reducing the national debt? Or delivering on promises, by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alike, for “Marshall plans” to rebuild societies at risk of letting the next Al Qaeda flourish?

“We’re Americans,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who served briefly as President Obama’s director of national intelligence, said recently when asked how the costs rose, then spiraled out of control. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” The nation never really debated these priorities: “What justifies this level of spending?” he asked. That debate has begun, but only recently, after a huge federal deficit and a national weariness with a decade of war created a reaction so powerful that some fear the nation will retreat into isolationism.

“From today’s perspective, we suffered a trauma and then a post-traumatic stress disorder that we tried to cure by throwing endless money at the problem,” said David Rothkopf, who wrote a history of the National Security Council, where many of the decisions were made. “There are expenditures of necessity and expenditures of choice, and it has taken us a full decade to recognize that some of the choices were fundamentally wrong. Only now have we hit the pivot point.”

The trade-offs — not guns versus butter but short-term security versus long-term — were not apparent in the early days when Sept. 11 seemed like the new Pearl Harbor. They were the furthest thing from anyone’s mind on that sunny, horrifying day. I was covering President Bush’s visit to a Sarasota, Fla., schoolhouse that morning, and when the second plane hit the south tower in New York, it became instantly evident to both the president’s aides and the traveling press that this was the work of Bin Laden, and that a presidency was transforming before our eyes. A forceful response was inevitable.

It was more than a year before anyone talked about whether America’s whatever-it-takes approach risked granting Bin Laden his obvious wish of wreaking huge economic havoc, and by then the United States was headed to Iraq.

As the immediate response turned into the broader, ill-defined “Global War on Terror” — the Pentagon even issued a GWOT medal for service outside the main theaters of battle — that debate over opportunity costs was labeled almost unpatriotic. The director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey, was forced to resign after suggesting in 2002 that a war with Iraq could cost $100 billion to $200 billion. Mitch Daniels, then head of the Office of Management and Budget, was sent to offer a counterestimate of $50 billion to $60 billion, a rounding error in modern federal budgeting. (The Democrats’ estimate was $93 billion.) The actual number, according to the Congressional Research Service, is $800 billion and climbing.

Afghanistan, by contrast, has been a bargain, at about half the cost — less than the long-term price tag, $589 billion by one estimate, of caring for the veterans of both wars.

No president enters a war with the faintest idea of what it will cost, of course. But at least two-thirds of the 9/11 response can be traced to a few lines in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, which declared the United States had to pre-empt any credible, emerging threat. For years, there was no talk of a “minimal deterrent,” proportionate response or balancing defense against other priorities. As one White House official asked me scoldingly, who applies cost-benefit calculations to national security?

Today, it seems unimaginable not to. Indeed, perhaps the biggest single change in the national security strategy of the United States since Mr. Obama came to office is the constant whir of that calculation. When Mr. Obama announced the “surge” in Afghanistan — modeled after the largely successful surge in Iraq — he slipped a few paragraphs into his speech to make clear that the days of open-ended war were over. “Over the past several years, we have lost that balance” between investing at home and investing in national security, he said. “Competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

At the time, Mr. Obama’s caution was dismissed as political posturing. “What everyone missed — even his own generals — is that he believes this to his core, and that’s what differentiates his strategy from Bush’s,” one senior administration official said. Mr. Obama has set a deadline for the surge troops to be pulled back by September 2012, two months before the election.

But the real model for a new approach — one that avoids $3.3 trillion price tags — was evident in Libya. To Mr. Obama, this was the test of the thesis that there is an alternative approach to bringing about regime change. Like Saddam Hussein, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was a vicious dictator with a history of terrorism and nuclear ambitions. While Mr. Obama decided to intervene in Libya — over the objections of his defense secretary — he insisted that there be no ground troops, that NATO allies take the lead and that the United States offer only “unique capabilities.” Even with those restrictions, American operations cost more than a billion dollars, and critics like Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, charged that the “halfway in” approach prolonged the conflict and cost untold Libyan lives.

Whether he is right or wrong, Libya was an example of what countries with real restraints — fiscal, political and strategic — have to do. Because even a hyperpower, as the French called the United States just before 9/11, cannot absorb more than one bill for $3.3 trillion.

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