What Will the U.S. Have to Give up to Fight in Syria?

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While President Obama and other warhawks are getting ready to attack Syria, it behooves the rest of us to sit back and calmly assess the costs and benefits. Opportunity cost is what you give up when you make a choice with your resources. It is one of the unshakable, fundamental realities of economic action. If you spend a dollar on an apple, you no longer have that dollar to spend on something else.

What would be the cost of a full-on intervention in Syria? We can look to the War in Iraq to give us an idea in terms of government spending. During the year 2008, spending on the Iraq War reached an average of about $400 million dollars per day (about $12 billion per month). Though there was no organized opposition to Saddam Hussein for the U.S. to take advantage of, Iraq also lacked the tangible backing of nations like Iran and Russia.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s head of state, has declared that a no-fly zone over any part of Syria is not an option, and seems willing to go further to give aid to Russia’s ally. The U.S., should it decide to put boots on the ground, would likely find stiffer resistance in Syria than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And every dollar spent there is a dollar not spent here at home.

Meanwhile, the American infrastructure is aging and beginning to crumble. There are nearly 600,000 bridges in the U.S., and over a quarter of them are deficient, either structurally or in their capacity to handle modern traffic flows.  Half a century ago, there was a boom in bridge construction, but these bridges were only expected to last fifty years. We are far behind in our upkeep.

In 2009, a mere $5.2 billion was appropriated for the Highway Bridge Program, as opposed to the estimated $70.9 billion needed to eliminate the backlog of deficient bridges. That is a shortfall of $65.7 billion dollars. That entire sum could have been paid for with five and a half months of spending on the Iraq War, but instead of a modern, healthy infrastructure, we have dead American soldiers.

To put this in perspective, in 1933, construction was started on The Golden Gate Bridge, to be finished in 1937. It cost $35 million, which is the equivalent of $612.5 million today. The way things are shaping up, and given the experience in Iraq, a war in Syria could well cost us a Golden Gate Bridge each and every day we are there fighting.

Tens of thousands of our bridges urgently need modifications and repairs. This money has to come from somewhere. We should be drawing down our presence in the Middle East, not ramping it up. Repairing bridges means jobs for Americans and a more adequate infrastructure; intervention in Syria means more soldiers killed in action.

Americans do not want another expensive, destructive war, and our leaders need to know it. Call your representative and let him or her know that there are better ways to spend American money, resources and manpower. Tell them to keep us out of Syria.

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