Wars are always more expensive than officials promise, so, if the U.S. is to intervene in Syria, it is important to ask what it will actually cost and how that cost will be paid.
USA Today claims that if the intervention in Syria is limited, the cost would be limited, too. American University professor and former Clinton administration Department of Defense official Gordon Adams said, “this would come in under $100 million, if it goes off as advertised.”
The Obama administration and the Congressional Budget Office haven’t scored the cost of the Syrian intervention as yet but when they do, taxpayers should take the numbers with a grain of salt. Wars always cost more than projected.
As Seth Cline of U.S. News and World Report pointed out earlier this year, “the Bush administration estimated the [Iraq] war would cost $50 to $60 billion, including the costs of reconstruction and clean up. As of 2013, the Cost of War Project estimates the war has cost $1.7 trillion — nearly 30 times the pre-war estimate.”
So, how much would an intervention in Syria really cost? It is unclear because there are so many factors to consider, but the most obvious is mission creep (we intervene more deeply than originally planned).
Equally important, lawmakers regularly fail to anticipate extra costs. That is strange, considering the abundance of evidence available that the military suffers constant cost overruns, especially when it comes to weapons systems and war costs.
Clearly, this type of habitual overspending isn’t limited to the military. In 1967, long-run forecasts estimated that Medicare would cost about $12 billion by 1990; it actually cost more than $98 billion by that year Today, it costs $510 billion.
The problem is also not confined to Washington. In 2002, the Journal of the American Planning Association published one of the most comprehensive studies of cost overruns, looking over the past 70 years at 258 government projects around the world with a combined value of $90 billion.
The Danish economists Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Skamris Holm, and Soren Buhl found that nine out of 10 public works projects had exceeded their initially estimated costs.
The Sydney Opera House and the Concorde supersonic airplane were the most spectacular examples, with cost overruns of 1,400 percent and 1,100 percent, respectively.
Budget busting occurred throughout the seven decades studied, with the totals spent routinely ranging from 50 to 100 percent more than the original estimate.
Their research also estimated that American cost overruns reached an average of $55 billion per year. No surprise there. Think about projects like the Big Dig, the unofficial name of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project in Boston, Mass.
To this day, it is the most expensive highway project in U.S. history. The project was completed in 2007 (nine years later than originally scheduled), and, according to The Boston Globe, ultimately will cost $22 billion, including interest, and won’t be paid off until 2038. The estimated cost in 1985 was $2.6 billion (incidentally, $22 billion today is roughly $53 billion in 1982 dollars).
The bottom line is that government projects are almost always more expensive than originally advertised — and taxpayers need to be aware of this when Congress and the president decide (likely against popular opinion) to go into Syria.
For once, Americans should demand lawmakers disclose how they will pay for this new intervention. Here’s a suggestion: the Pentagon could identify lower-priority spending items to cut, or lawmakers could make the case to the American people for a war tax.
In any case, the cost of the intervention, whether small or large, shouldn’t simply be added to the nation’s credit card.
VERONIQUE DE RUGY, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a senior research fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.