Since the President committed U.S. military forces to participation in the international effort to prevent the slaughter of rebels in Libya, much of the criticism, from all points of the political spectrum, has focused on the cost of the action, and its impact on the federal budget... and a good percentage of that discourse has been frustrating to me.
I don’t propose to take a position here for or against the military action per se — it’s not that I don’t have a position, of course; it’s just that I want to focus on one specific issue, and not distract from my own point — but I do want to take on the notion that our current budget woes are a good reason to either support or oppose the Libya involvement. I think they are not, for two reasons:
First, I may be mistaken, but I believe that by far the largest percentage of the cost estimates to date is made up of the cost of the munitions expended. To be sure, there must be some incremental cost from the logistics of moving troops and equipment around... but so far, there hasn’t really been time for much of that. And there’s also no doubt been some additional personnel costs, from reservists and National Guard troops called up, and from combat pay increments as well. But I’m pretty sure that most of the cost to date has been the cost of the “bullets” we’ve fired. I used those quotation marks because we’re not talking about actual bullets, but complex, expensive weapon systems like cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and smart bombs. Unlike actual bullets, you don’t pay for these things as you use them, and you don’t run down to Cabela’s with cash in your pocket to replace them right after using them, either. These expensive weapons have long production lead times, and are (AFAIK¹) purchased in production lots that are contracted for years in advance.
So the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars these weapons represent has already been spent, years ago, at the time they were produced, and the cost of replacing them will be spent — if they are, in fact, replaced — years from now. That’s not to suggest that there’s no cost to using these weapons, of course, but the suggestion, implicit in so much of what I’ve been reading, that they compete directly with current federal spending is way too simple: If a particular missile in our inventory cost a million dollars to acquire, it does not mean that we’ll have a million dollars more in the federal coffers tomorrow if we just don’t fire that missile today. The “we could’ve spent these hundreds of millions on education and infrastructure instead” argument is... not exactly wrong, but too simplistic to be truly meaningful. And this comes from someone who’s desperately eager to see more spending on education and infrastructure.
My second objection to the cost-based criticism is more philosophical: Military action is immensely consequential in moral² terms, and to base the decision to employ deadly force — or not to, in the face of a compelling moral imperative — on mere affordability strikes me as horrific. Nations should base the use of military force on clear national interests (which, literalists and isolationists notwithstanding, often include humanitarian and multinational goals), and the choice should be made in a moral context. I don't imagine anyone would advocate that we embark on military actions simply because we can afford them, without regard to what's right; by the same token, holding back because of cost when action is morally required is also unthinkable.
There is surely an important choice to be made — and regularly revisited — regarding what share of our common resources ought to be devoted to military preparedness. But this guns versus butter debate is at the macro level and over an extended timeline. When deciding, in the immediate historical moment, whether or not to put the military force we possess to use, cost should be the least of our concerns.
¹ Personally, I have more awareness of the production cycle for durable weapon systems like fighter planes, but I believe what I say holds true for expendable munitions, too, at this level of complexity. Cruise missiles, at least, are essentially self-piloting kamikaze aircraft, not substantially less complex than many piloted craft.
² Please understand that I use moral in a strictly secular sense; nothing here should be construed as recommending any sort of religious test for military action.