During a stint in government as a senior advisor at the Defense Department, I frequently heard about the need to “do more with less.” This aphorism struck me as overly optimistic and perhaps even naive. It suggested the problem was purely one of using resources poorly or of ineffective planning, and ignored the impassibility of some problems that were simply outside of U.S. control. More often than not, I would argue to colleagues, a clear-eyed view of the problem would lead us to conclude that a reduction in resources would force us to do less with less. There are exceptions, of course. Ironically, given my penchant for pessimism, an area where I specialize – counterterrorism – is one where the United States actually could do more with less.
According to a recent Stimson Center report, the U.S. government cannot account for how much it has spent on counterterrorism since 9/11. The reasons for this include inconsistencies in the definition of counterterrorism and other relevant terms, discrepancies in data, and poor monitoring efforts. The report estimates the price tag at roughly $2.8 trillion from 2002 to 2017. This figure does not capture other costs: troops killed or wounded in action; the military’s focus on low-intensity warfare at the expense of preparing for a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer competitor; the political and diplomatic emphasis on countries in the Middle East and South Asia at the expense of other regions; and senior officials’ time and attention.