(Cover Image: An Atomic Weapon Test, via Wikipedia)
In a recent interview with Sky News, Janet Yellen, the Biden administration’s Treasury Secretary, stated that the United States “can certainly afford to stand with Israel and to support Israel's military needs,” in addition to “Ukraine in its struggle against Russia.” This has been misquoted and misconstrued as Yellen saying that the United States can afford “two wars,” most notably in the headline of a Fox Business article. Therefore, an implication held in this misnomer is that the United States is currently actively engaged in a war assisting Ukraine and soon to be in a war assisting Israel. Ignoring the horrors implicit in the possibility of another United States intervention in an international conflict, this conception conveniently ignores the fact that the American government is currently involved in four other wars, taking place in Somalia, Niger, Yemen, and Syria.
Near the end of 2020, former president Donald Trump withdrew around 700 troops from Somalia. For the most part, these troops were not actively engaged in combat in the region, but rather served as advisors and trainers to the Somali military in their fight against Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist terrorist organization. This is the second time the United States military has been partly engaged in a conflict in Somalia, with the first occurring during the Clinton administration. This second intervention began in 2007 and seemed to be coming to a close during the Trump administration, but with the election of Joe Biden to the Oval Office, this foreign policy decision was largely reversed.
The new size of American forces in the region is smaller than that under the Obama and Trump administrations, with less than 500 being redeployed this time around. However, this is still a costly endeavor, albeit a mere pittance in comparison to the over 800 billion dollars of the current United States defense budget. According to a report by Brown University’s Watson Institute, about 2.5 billion dollars has been spent on counterterrorism in Somalia since the start of the 2007 intervention. This figure notably excludes military and intelligence operations in the region, which certainly leads to a greater price tag. This is not the United States’ only counterterrorist war, however, as the Sahel is also home to Islamist groups the United States is fighting against, most notably in Niger.
In comparison to other armed conflicts the United States is involved in, Niger is a relatively inexpensive one. According to Reuters, between 2012 and 2021 roughly half a billion dollars has been spent arming and training forces in the region. That number is certainly larger now, but following a military coup in the country in July of 2023, some foreign aid was paused to the government. However, the United States still maintains a military presence of around 1,100 troops in the country and has at least two major military installations in the state (with several more across the Sahel). These cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars each to build and upkeep, as pointed out in an article by The Intercept. In comparison to this, the United States’ involvement in Yemen seems relatively minuscule, until one factors in their alliance with Saudi Arabia.
As of 2023, following a series of ceasefires and reconciliation between the major backers of the conflict ⎯ Iran and Saudi Arabia ⎯ the war in Yemen has largely subsided. During the major period of the conflict, however, the State Department claims that the United States had given over 5.4 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to the recognized Yemeni government. While that sounds like a positive influence, helping the country’s citizens instead of harming them, this figure conveniently leaves out the at least 54.6 billion dollars in arms and training purchased by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This figure from the Government Accountability Office means that the United States has actually made at least ten times the money in arms sales against Yemen than they have given to Yemen in humanitarian assistance. While the United States is not directly involved in the Yemen War, the same can not be said for the Syrian Civil War.
Unlike the Yemeni Civil War but similar to the wars in Niger and Somalia, United States involvement in the Syrian Civil War is largely based around counter-terrorist activities rather than direct opposition to the Assad government. This includes spill-overs into neighboring Iraq, as one may expect when the primary antagonist for the United States in the region is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Department of Defense, the anti-Islamic State coalition in the region (the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve) has spent at least 14.3 billion dollars thus far in Syria (and to a lesser extent, Iraq). This figure is only a fraction of the actual cost, however, as this figure from the DoD only includes the money spent from 2014 to 2017, and additionally does not include humanitarian assistance. So the question remains: can the United States afford two more wars?
In the current wars the United States is involved in, billions upon billions have been spent on both humanitarian aid and lethal force. While this figure may seem excessive to readers, to the United States government, it is actually fairly reasonable. According to the Watson Institute, at least eight trillion dollars has been spent on the wars following the September 11th terrorist attacks. In contrast, what is a measly few billion here and there? Therefore, the United States can certainly afford the $75 billion given to Ukraine pro bono so far and the $14 billion pledged to Israel in their current conflict. Additionally, this does not even include the planned aid to Taiwan and additional reinforcement of the southern border. So, let us bump that number up from six wars to a possible eight.
The answer to whether or not the United States can afford to be involved in all of these conflicts is a resounding yes. Despite my efforts to show the exceeding costs of the current wars the United States is a part of, the US will always be able to afford more war. Let us not forget that Joe Biden said he would veto Medicare for all on account of the cost and has had his student debt relief program shot down by the Supreme Court. Despite those ideas being far more popular than the constant warfare of the past twenty-two years, there is likely not going to be any change to how US foreign policy operates. We can only sit back and watch as the eight trillion spent so far slowly turns into nine trillion.
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