Is it surprising or just obvious that our decisions to overthrow regimes and assume responsibility for their successors comes with a large and often wasted investment and a legacy of enmity? Imperial palaces that cost a mint but are underused and may be torn down? Local populations that are unhappy with our presence and policies?
The wastes of empire are once again made clear by two recent reports. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported on July 8 that the Army had spent $34 million to construct, in Kandahar, a 64,000 sq. ft. regional command headquarters for 1,200-1,500 military personnel that it no longer needed.
In fact, according to SIGAR, as early as May 2013 (two months after asking for the money), the Marines, whose division headquarters was to have used the building, determined it no longer needed it and asked for the project to be stopped. The Army went right on building it. Now they have to decide whether to tear it down or turn it over to the Afghans (with more renovation costs).
The State Department, however, makes the Army look like a fiscal piker. As the U.S. military occupied Iraq and planned for a lengthy presence, State designed and built the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, at a minimal cost of $750 million dollars. The building includes a huge dining facility, a six-lane swimming pool, workout rooms and a basketball court, as well as living quarters. The major diplomatic facilities we have in Iraq, including the embassy, occupy 350 acres.
According to the State Department's Inspector General, as revealed by diplomacy blogger Diplopundit, the building was originally intended to house 11,500 people. In January 2014, there will be less than half that in the facility -- easier access to those swimming lanes.
And the residents will want to stay indoors, too, because the streets of Baghdad are still not safe. It costs nearly $50 million to keep the staff safe, according to the IG. Or they could just fly, using the embassy's airline, artfully known as "Embassy Air," which costs $128 million a year to operate. And if injured, we spend $85 million a year on hospitals and health facilities throughout Iraq to support them. But don't get in trouble with the locals; less than half the consular staff speaks Arabic, making communications difficult.
Overall, the IG says, the United States allocated more than $3 billion in FY 2012 to fund our diplomatic presence in Iraq and, among other things, administer another $1.3 billion in assistance.
Inevitably, the expansion of our military and diplomatic activities over the past decade, especially in these two countries, has drawn fire, literally. The insurgency and IED attacks against the military are well known. Those against our diplomats are less public.
According to the other significant report, from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at State and aptly entitled "Significant Attacks Against U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel, 1998-2012" there have been 265 "significant attacks" against U.S. diplomatic facilities since 1998.
Maybe that's a lot; maybe that's a little. No, it's a lot, because the rate is growing. Grouped in five year periods, the rate has gone from about 9 a year over the first five years, to nearly 17 a year over the next five, to an average of 27 attacks a year between 2008 and 2012.
Moreover, so many of the attacks in the last four years have been against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the Diplomatic Service counted them all as one attack in the data. So If you count the 41 Baghdad embassy attacks in 2009, the 50 in 2010, the 35 in 2011, and the 41 in 2012 (the year after our forces were all gone), the average number of attacks worldwide over the past five years is more than double -- 60, not 27. And over half of the 298 attacks over those five years were against that white elephant in Baghdad.
Ah, well, you say, the wages of trying to keep global peace and stability. Maybe we should keep doing these things until we get it right. Surprisingly, Iraq Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen, who has been a merciless critic of wasteful spending in Iraq, and Amb. John Herbst, the director of the Center for Complex Operations of the National Defense University, seem to want to encourage such behavior.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 9, they called for the United States to create an entirely new, separate agency to handle major reconstruction operations. Set aside whether we, or any occupying power, has the capacity to reconstruct and govern another country. Sounds like the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over thinking the outcome will change.
Maybe we need to think about whether it is wise to continue down this expensive and wasteful road.
John Boehner is "appalled" at the president's budget proposal, presented last week by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Sen. Lindsey Graham called it a "joke." As for me, I am shocked, shocked that there are hard lines being taken at the start of a negotiation. And some of the stuff they are starting to talk about is funny numbers, making budget analysts crazy.
When a deal comes, and I believe it will, the numbers are likely to continue to be somewhat funny, because neither side wants to leave itself open to political criticism. In the spirit of badly-needed bipartisanship, let's take two examples.
The Republican side rejects the notion of raising tax rates on the rich and says it has options for increasing revenues without doing so. The administration, and the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, estimate that letting tax rates on incomes over $250,000 return to their pre-Bush tax cut level could raise $1.6 trillion over the next decade, a substantial contribution to reaching the goal of $4 trillion in overall deficit reduction.
Republicans, terrified of the wrath of Grover Norquist, refuse to go there. Instead, they say, with changes in the tax code, particularly the reduction or elimination of tax breaks, they can raise revenues. We're talking here about things like deductions for mortgage interest, state and local sales taxes, charitable contributions, and the tax-free premiums employers contribute toward employee health insurance. Unfortunately, as far as anyone knows, this is a mystery calculation, as they have put nothing specific on the table.
It's pretty understandable that they don't want to be specific; many of these tax breaks help the very middle class families the Republicans claim to be defending. But there is another reason the Republicans are avoiding specifics. Unless those middle class tax breaks are eliminated altogether, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that savings from lowering what are called "tax expenditures" will never add up to $1.6 trillion or even a cool trillion. (I love Washington; so much funny language, so little time. One of my former bosses at the Office of Management and Budget hated to call a budget cut a "cut." Instead, the boss would refer to budgetary "plus ups" and budgetary "plus downs." Really!)
So the Republicans' numbers don't add up to much -- not a real contribution on the revenue side. But without details they can claim, "We did too put revenues on the table."
The Obama administration can make things up, too. For example, the president's budget proposal, sent to Congress in February and reiterated by Secretary Geithner, invents budget savings that are not there. Specifically, I am talking about the $800 billion the administration claims as "war savings," or, if you like, a "peace dividend" over the next 10 years. Except, funny thing, the administration's budget does not forecast war spending past the next five years. And the numbers for those five years ($44 billion per year) are notional -- that is, they are not based on any programs or plans for prosecuting the war; they are a placeholder. The administration actually has no idea what war costs will be in the future (the Bush administration used the same budgetary dodge), but we do know that they plan to pull the troops out of Afghanistan. Between leaving Iraq and those plans, war costs have already been falling fast, from nearly $180 billion to just under $160 billion, to just over $120 billion to $88 billion over the past four budgets.
With troops coming home next year, they are likely to continue to fall until they disappear, absorbed into the regular Pentagon budget. The back of my envelope (which is as good as the number the administration uses) says war spending will disappear by the FY 2015 budget submission (that's the year after next). Secretary Geithner tried to argue this was not a gimmick, but it is. (Rep. Paul Ryan used the phony savings, too, in his budget proposal earlier this year.)
In sum, from a budgetary perspective there is no war spending we can "save" over the next decade. But, rather than set the Pentagon on the trajectory toward real reductions that it needs to make, the administration is just pocketing phony savings to get to its goal.
So there we are. The Republicans make up savings for which they provide no details. The administration makes up savings, with details, that don't exist. Maybe that's enough to get us through the "fiscal pothole" we face in January. But it does not bode well for what happens to real federal revenues and spending after that.
Coda: The Republicans put something on the table Monday that they are calling a "counter-offer." But they have provided little detail, so we don't know whether they plan to count the same phony war savings.
TOBY JORRIN/AFP/Getty Images
Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.