David R. Henderson  

Leon Panetta: Wars Will Go On Forever

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At a speech that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey yesterday, I posed the following question:

Good morning, Mr. Secretary. I'm David Henderson, an economics professor here in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy.

Ohio State University professor John Mueller stated in a recent article in Foreign Affairs:

an al Qaeda computer seized in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that the group's budget for research on weapons of mass destruction (almost all of it focused on primitive chemical weapons work) was some $2,000 to $4,000.

In your previous job [I made a mistake here: he was already Defense Secretary when he said it but it seemed clear that these data were ones he got as CIA Director], you yourself pointed out that there are fewer than two dozen key operatives left in al Qaeda. Given our huge budget deficit, when do you say, "Enough is enough. Let's end those wars because the costs are so much higher than the hypothetical gains."

Here's his answer from Larry Parsons' report in the Monterey County Herald, which agrees with the one I remember hearing:
Responding to an NPS faculty member's question about winding down the costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Panetta responded sternly.

"Those wars will end when the individuals who have threatened this country are no longer there to threaten our country," he said.

The goal is to leave Iraq and Afghanistan stable, secure and "in a position to build on the sacrifices that have been made," he said.

We could do some parsing here, taking him literally, and say that Panetta is saying the wars will end when those who threatened the United States in the past are no longer there. That's a plausible, though expensive, goal. But does anyone believe that if people in that part of the world threaten the United States in the future, he and his boss will say, "No problem: we got rid of all the past threats." It seems clear from context that Panetta means that as long as there are threats there, the wars will continue. Which means that he is arguing for carrying on the wars forever. Although 2024 is not forever, last week, the Telegraph in the United Kingdom reported that the Afghan and U.S. governments are close to signing a deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2024.

By the way, it was gratifying to have a number of my past students from my Cost/Benefit Analysis class stop me in the hallway or e-mail me afterward to comment that they got my point immediately because of the class I had taught them.

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The author at The Liberal Order in a related article titled Leon Panetta On the Wars In Iraq and Afghanistan writes:
    Over at EconLog, David Henderson discusses the response of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to a question posed by Henderson. Henderson rightly criticizes Panetta for ignoring cost-benefit analysis. But Panetta would also do the world a favor if he un... [Tracked on August 24, 2011 8:28 PM]
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Kevin L writes:
By the way, it was gratifying to have a number of my past students from my Cost/Benefit Analysis class stop me in the hallway or e-mail me afterward to comment that they got my point immediately because of the class I had taught them.
Teaching subversive ideas, are we? You'd better be careful you don't become a threat!
steve writes:

I think these wars might end. But, only if they can find a bigger better war.

Eric Morey writes:

I think that Panetta was just demonstrating that a response is not necessarily and answer. He didn't address the the potential costs or gains from military action in Afghanistan. He merely declared an unattainable goal a poorly defined goal thus guaranteeing both success and failure.

Tom West writes:

I think it's a little unfair to expect an official to publicly use a logical construct like cost/benefit analysis in a forum where doing so could end his career.

Indeed, your students and most of the readers here could understand your question, but it would be ludicrously easy to take any logical reply and use it as proof he's willing to put Americans at risk. For better or worse, the majority of voters would never get beyond that statement.

I hit the same thing myself when I say outright that the average Canadian standard of medical care does not match the average American standard of medical care.

And that that is a *good* thing (for Canadians as a whole) as the only way to increase that standard would be to pay a price that would massively *decrease* the standard of living in every other way. (Obviously, David Henderson and I disagree whether the loss of freedom to Canadians is worth the better overall coverage of the lower end of citizens.)

Most Canadians can't really accept the first statement even though it's pretty obvious because they cannot emotionally understand the concept of a trade-off for big things. And I suspect that's the way most of the world works.

Cost-benefit analysis is for policy sessions (and blogs!) where such policy decisions can be discussed - not for public forums where politics and people's belief systems are more important than policy.

Linus Huber writes:

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Bill writes:

The last part of the quote from the newspaper seems to hint that Panetta considers sunk cost an important consideration in going forward.

Bryan Willman writes:

Such wars will go on so long as politicians think that carrying them on is a way to gain or stay in power.

If by some miracle everybody in the US suddenly gains perspective and a clear cost/benefit analysis of the issue, wars will be fewer, but not zero, because sometimes they are worth fighting.

I'm not holding my breath for that. In part because in a country the size of the US, it's very easy for somebody to feel relatively secure, believe it's due to our military efforts, and believe those efforts have little cost (because that person doesn't know anybody killed there, and happens to pay low taxes.)

Stan writes:

You're asking for figures and he's answering with rhetoric. The answer to most such difficult questions will almost always be when it is politically preferable to the status quo.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Excellent, David! Of course, continuing the wars assures a never-ending future supply of people to "threaten this country." It's a perpetual-motion machine. I've nominated George W. Bush for the Nobel prize in physics.

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