How much has Osama bin Laden cost the United States in cold hard cash? Ezra Klein had an excellent item this morning assessing the economic cost of Osama bin Laden to the United States, but I think I side more with Kevin Drum’s response, which emphasizes the long-term structural factors involved in U.S. deficit politics, which mainly come down to GOP tax aversion on the one hand and exploding medical costs on the other.
On the accounting level, what I’d add is that at least in my opinion, bin Laden had virtually nothing to do with the American decision to go to war in Iraq. The people who sold that war wanted it well before the George W. Bush presidency began, and their case for war certainly was flexible enough that it could have been adapted to whatever events were thrown at it. Would resistance have been stronger without the string of terrorist attacks culminating on Sept. 11, 2001? One cannot prove it either way, but there aren’t a whole lot of examples in American history of successfully deterring a president and his administration when they are dead set on war.
On the larger level, however, I’d say that it’s a mistake to confuse federal budget deficits with the nation’s economic condition. Klein says that bin Laden “could only provoke us into bankrupting ourselves. And he came pretty close.” But that’s not true at all. As a nation, the United States is fabulously wealthy, and even if you give terrorists full credit for provoking the policies that resulted in the financial crisis and recession of the past few years — something I wouldn’t do — it doesn’t matter; the United States remains fabulously wealthy. Not broke. Fabulously wealthy.
Of course, the suffering from the Great Recession is very real. But it isn’t anywhere close to the kind of thing that brings a country down. Give bin Laden full credit for everything on Klein’s list, and you’re still nowhere even remotely close to bankrupting the nation.