Unanswered questions remain after Obama’s Libya speech

The Pentagon is reporting that the first week of the war in Libya cost U.S. taxpayers at least $600 million, including $269 million for cruise missiles, and $60 million for the downed F-15E fighter jet.

Costs also included hundreds of precision guided bombs at tens of thousands of dollars each, and increasingly expensive fuel for ships and planes.

But will taxpayers actually have to pay? Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. government raised taxes to pay for World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. But in the 21st century, under Presidents Bush and Obama, we wage war without raising taxes. President Bush actually cut taxes after we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those tax cuts have been extended for all taxpayers under President Obama. Since we don’t have to pay anything extra, why not go to war in Libya, too? Maybe we’ll get another tax cut.

President Obama may have to submit an emergency supplemental budget request for Libya, which is how much of the war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan have been paid, essentially with borrowed, unbudgeted money. Maybe we can think of this spending as more economic stimulus. Let’s get America back to work producing cruise missiles and precision guided bombs, while we go deeper into debt to pay for them.

Now that the March Madness basketball tournament is coming to an end, maybe someone should set up a betting pool on how long our military involvement in Libya will last. President Obama can bet on a short involvement in Libya. And I’ll hope he wins that bet. But if I had to bet, I’d go long.

If our mission is limited to protecting civilians in Libya pursuant to the United Nations resolution, and not regime change, then the civil war in that country could last a long time. And even if the rebels we are supporting miraculously replace the dictator Gaddafi, the process of forming a new government will be convoluted, protracted, and expensive, and will require a stabilizing military presence for a long time, just as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Let’s not be taken in by talk of the handoff of the military mission to NATO. The United States is at the heart of NATO. So it’s still our war. We’re just changing hats.

Who will pay? What’s our goal in Libya? What’s our exit strategy? How long are we prepared to stay and fight in Libya? Is the Obama doctrine to intervene anywhere to protect civilians, even in the absence of any threat to our national interests, or only in countries with oil?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal