(CNN) -- A number of conservative hawks, including Senator John McCain and House Armed Services Committee chair Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, have argued that the costs of military attacks against Syria justify rolling back planned cuts in Pentagon spending.
As reported earlier this week on CNN.com, McCain and his colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham have intimated that support for President Obama's plans for military strikes in Syria hinges on a pledge to protect the Pentagon budget from further reductions. This course of action makes no sense for several reasons.
First, assuming that the limited strikes proposed by President Obama go forward, an independent estimate by former White House budget official Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center put the cost at as little as $100 million. Even if the bombing goes on longer and the cost jumps to ten times this amount ($1 billion), it would be just two-tenths of one per cent of the current Pentagon budget. If they are proposing that the United States go beyond limited strikes to full-scale war, proponents of linking Syria to overall Pentagon spending should say so.
Otherwise, a limited attack on Syria is more than manageable within current or anticipated Pentagon resources. The question would be whether to do it, not whether the Pentagon can afford it.
Second, if Syria is as urgent a national priority as McCain, McKeon and their cohorts claim, there is plenty of waste in the Pentagon budget that could offset the costs of military action. Offsetting war costs in this way would be consistent with the position taken by many conservatives on issues of genuine urgency like Hurricane Sandy, when they called for matching cuts for any money spent on hurricane relief.
A limited strike would cost less than the price of an F-35 combat aircraft, which currently costs over $160 million per plane. The F-35 is overpriced, underperforming and unnecessary in light of the most likely challenges to our security in the decades to come. A strike would also cost less than one quarter of the $436 million the Congress is trying to add for M-1 tanks the Pentagon isn't even asking for. And it would be roughly one per cent of the cost of the $10 billion B-61 bomb program, a costly addition to our nuclear arsenal that will undermine our security, not promote it.
Bipartisan analyses of Pentagon waste from groups ranging from R Street and the National Taxpayers Union to the Project on Government Oversight and Taxpayers for Common Sense have identified dozens of additional items that could be cut from the Pentagon budget without undermining our ability to address the most urgent threats we face.
Using Syria as an excuse to hold off on Pentagon cuts would be an endorsement of the tens of billions of dollars in waste that exist in the current Department of Defense budget. And it would postpone a long overdue reshaping of the U.S. military to address a world increasingly dominated by non-traditional threats like cyber-attacks, climate change, epidemics of disease, and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Third, there are serious questions about whether an attack on Syria makes sense in the first place. Adding more violence to a conflict that has claimed over 100,000 lives over the past two years is more likely to fan the flames of war than it is to rein in the Assad regime or increase the chances of a political settlement to the conflict. By this logic, any dollar spent on attacking Syria is one dollar too many.
All of the above should be tempered by the knowledge that any military conflict can spiral out of control and end up costing far more in lives and dollars than originally anticipated. If that happens in Syria it would represent a colossal error in judgment. But if U.S. involvement in Syria escalates into a wider war, the funds to do so can and should be raised at that point, so that the Congress and the public can fully weigh the costs of going down that road.
The Congress and the nation have a week to debate whether the United States should launch a military attack on Syria. But regardless of where one stands on the war, we shouldn't let fuzzy math on the part of advocates of intervention railroad us into spending more on the Pentagon than is necessary to defend the country and its interests.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Hartung.