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Cost not a factor in decision on Libya

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni says U.S. military operations were relatively low cost, low casualty
  • The expense and high number of deaths came during the nation-building phases, he says
  • He says we swiftly toppled Taliban, Saddam and the Serbs in Kosovo; costs came after
  • No nation-building planned in Libya, he says, so cost much less of a factor
  • Libya
  • Iraq War
  • Kosovo
  • Afghanistan War
  • The Taliban

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- We are told one major worry about our intervention in Libya is the cost. Having fought in a war, I strongly feel that we should resort to fighting only if all other means to resolve a conflict have been exhausted. However, the costs are not an issue.

The military operations that defeated the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Serbs in Kosovo were carried out swiftly, with low casualties and low cost. It is the nation-building that follows that runs the costs through the roof -- and nobody is talking about nation-building in Libya.

Writing about intervention in Libya, Tom Friedman tells the readers of The New York Times that "sadly, we can't afford it. We have got to get to work on our own country." Democratic Sen. Bob Casey says that he would "love" to have the Arab League "help us pay for it -- have everybody pay for it -- because we have very little revenue here."

But all such assessments lump together the cost of defeating the regime with the cost of nation-building. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam's regime were carried out swiftly, with relatively few casualties and low costs. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for Iraq operations by the time President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" on May 1, 2003, and 139 American military members had died.

Most of the causalities and costs have come during the nation-building phase that followed. Since May 2003, more than 4,500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, and the direct cost of military operations in the country has exceeded $650 billion.

The Taliban government in Afghanistan was overthrown quickly in 2001. That year only 12 U.S. troops died. But as of October 2010, more than 1,300 have died. Only $21 billion was spent in 2001 and 2002, while the costs since fiscal year 2003 have amounted to over $300 billion, and they are projected to rise even higher -- the fiscal year 2011 request for Afghanistan, if approved, would raise the tab to over $450 billion.

Similarly, the war in Kosovo was won with almost no U.S. causalities and few outlays. The great difficulties and large outlays were caused by the partially successful nation-building that followed. although in this case, it was the U.N. more than the U.S. that carried it out.

All this shows that it is not the military intervention, but rather the nation-building, that exacts most of the casualties and the high costs.

There are many reasons to doubt that the intervention in Libya is a just or prudent one -- cost is hardly one of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

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