Pyrrhus wept…

Pyrrhus Wept

If you didn’t know the origin of the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ its lies in the battle of Asculum in 279BC.  A coalition of Greeks defeated their Roman foes but lost many of their best officers in the process.  The commander of the Hellenic forces, King Pyrrhus, is said to have remarked: “One more such victory, and we shall be undone.”

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death I took a peek at US defence spending figures over the last decade.  In 2001 the defence budget stood at $432 Billion.  By 2010 that had risen to $720 Billion, inflation adjusted.[1]

The difference between what the US would have spent from 2001-2011 (2010 and 2011 figures are estimates) if the budget had been held at 2001 levels is $1,978 Billion dollars.  Let me write that out in full for you: $1,978,000,000,000.  As it was, in those eleven years, total defence spending was $6730 Billion.

During the Bush years, the gross US public debt increased from $5.7 trillion in to $10.7 trillion (while under President Obama, it reached $14.2 trillion by February 2011 – albeit much of that has been bail out money for banks and stimuli for the US economy).

In that context an additional $2 trillion defence spending may not be the be all and end all but it is a significant extra burden, as is the interest on the debt incurred by that military spending.

Given the astonishing unravelling of American political dominance and the rapid shift of power eastwards one has to ask whether history might not judge the conflict between the world’s single superpower and one Mr. Osama bin Laden, late of Abbottabad, something of a Pyrrhic victory.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would have been like if the United States had spent $2 trillion winning friends and promoting democracy around the world.  My suspicion is that we really would be looking at a new American century and that bin Laden, dead or alive, would have been seen as an unwitting catalyst to a new wave of American greatness.


[1] Source: GAO, Overseas Contingency Operations: Funding and Cost Reporting for the Department of Defense, and FY 2011 President’s Budget documents.

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