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US Military Campaign Against ISIS May Cost $15 Billion a Year

However President Obama decides to go after the murderous Islamic State, the price of military action will be enormous: It will likely cost the U.S. $10 billion to $15 billion a year or more in stepped-up military air power and surveillance and expanded ground support.

Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and an expert on defense spending, told The Fiscal Times Tuesday that a realistic guestimate of the cost of an aggressive campaign against ISIS ranges from $10 billion to $15 billion in fiscal 2015. He based this partly on the cost of previous U.S. operations in the Middle East.

A fighter of the Islamic State stands guard near the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad June 19, 2014.
Reuters
A fighter of the Islamic State stands guard near the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad June 19, 2014.

Those included U.S. participation in enforcing a no-fly rule over northern and southern Iraq after the 1990-91 Iraq war and U.S. support of NATO allies in their efforts to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Adams calls his cost estimate a "back-of-the-envelop" calculation and stressed, "I don't know of anybody who has a hard estimate" on it.

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He added, "There are no assumptions yet based on operations and anticipated losses and number of trainers. You would have to run all those numbers."

While many are demanding a strong response to ISIS's brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley, lawmakers returning from a five-week recess after Labor Day will have to grapple with just how much authority to grant Obama and how to pay for the expanded operations.

The administration is preparing to request authorization from Congress for escalated military action against the Sunni Muslim terror group "across Iraq and Syria," under a revised counter-terrorism strategy the president unveiled last year, The Washington Post reported over the weekend.

Options range from beefing up the training and equipping of allied government forces and rebels, to extending a limited air campaign in northern Iraq to parts of Syria. The overall goal appears to be driving the ruthless ISIS out of Iraq and containing the group in its Syrian stronghold.

"Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won't be easy and it won't be quick," President Obama told the American Legion National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, as NBC News and others reported. "But tyrants and murderers before them should recognize that kind of hateful vision ultimately is no match for the strength and hopes of people who stand together."

Precisely what a stepped-up military campaign against ISIS would actually cost the U.S. is still a guess, of course, largely because the White House and the Pentagon are still considering major options. Moreover, Congress is still on vacation, and there's no way of accurately gauging what support the president can expect from rank-and-file Republicans.

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The $10 billion to $15 billion estimate from Adams of American University would come on top of the administration's defense budget request for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, including $496 billion for personnel and general DOD operating costs as well as $58 billion for "Overseas Contingency Operations," which covers the actual cost of wars.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have urged the president to prepare a tough, comprehensive plan to combat or defeat ISIS. Even before Foley's murder last week, 54 percent of Americans said they supported the current limited U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, while 39 percent opposed them, according to a poll by The Washington Post-ABC News.

Adams warned that despite the gung-ho rhetoric of defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), rank-and-file lawmakers and members of appropriations committees may be more skittish about granting the president expanded war powers and additional funding.

"Congress would actually have to have a vote to authorize it and they would have to jack up the budget," he said. "I don't think the politics on this are at all clear right now and won't be for another week or two."

He added, "The money issue has not been addressed in the Congress at all."

If the government finances this chapter of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East the same way it's financed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it will simply add the cost to the nation's credit card. George W. Bush was the first president since World War II to use deficit spending to cover the cost of decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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That added about $1.5 trillion in military costs to the federal debt over the subsequent 13 years – and prompted some liberal Democrats, including former House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin, to call for a special "war surtax."

The surtax would be "a percentage of your tax bill," Obey explained in 2007, according to CNN. "If you don't like the cost, then shut down the war." The measure would have required low-income and middle-income taxpayers to add 2 percent to their tax bill, while higher income taxpayers would pay an additional 12 to 15 percent.

The idea never gained traction – and won't this time either. Congress is in no mood to raise taxes before a crucial November election that will determine the political control of the House and Senate. What's more, the cost of expanding military action against ISIS is unlikely to be onerous compared to the overall $4 trillion federal budget – at least early on.

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"I don't think you put on a surtax every time there is a short-term bubble in policy change," Obey said in a phone interview Tuesday. "But if it were to go on for a significant amount of time, people ought to take a hard look at it."

Obey added, "We're going to pay a price for years because we didn't have a war surtax to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think there's probably a very large difference between the magnitude of the cost then and the cost now."

—By Eric Pianin, The Fiscal Times