Counting the costs of the response to 9/11
The Power Problem: Part of a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11.
Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times; Senior Fellow, National Security and the Press, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
This summer, in preparation for the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, The New York Times set out to assess the costs of America’s response – a daunting task, as many who have tried to tally up elements of the total can attest. The number was astounding: $3.3 trillion.
We drew on the work of many scholars, including some here at Harvard. We weighed which studies seemed based on good data and reasonable assumptions, and set aside some about which we had doubts. And we knew, of course, that when you are dealing with numbers and problems this big, quantification is always open to argument.
As you will see in the graphic that Amanda Cox compiled, the expenditures come in many forms. There are direct costs, of course: The huge price-tag of caring for the victims and their families, rebuilding the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the immediate upgrades to American homeland security. I would include in that number the price of toppling the Taliban, because no matter who was President at that time, war with Mullah Omar’s regime was inevitable while he harbored Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
But total those up, and they come to less than a trillion dollars. What of the rest? They are expenditures-of-choice, including the price of invading, occupying and attempting to remake Iraq. And there are costs that the U.S. has committed to into the future, most notably caring for the wounded veterans who have returned from two brutal wars. Some of those would have been incurred anyway, but the price-tag is stunning: $589 billion, or more than the United States has spent to date in the total effort in Afghanistan.
In an accompanying essay, I take up the question of the costs that cannot be quantified – the opportunity costs for a nation that never debated how this $3.3. trillion, about a fifth of the total national debt, should be spent. Taken together, the hard numbers and the what-might-have-beens provide much for reflection as this weekend of remembrance arrives.