Did Navy SEALs bring a peace dividend for Obama?

The killing of Osama bin Laden by the Navy SEALS should compel a more sober risk assessment of the terrorist threat by Congress and the Obama administration. Bin Laden himself wanted to bankrupt the US by causing overreaction to fear.

President Obama’s visit with the Navy SEALs that “got” Osama bin Laden was a moving moment of national gratitude, not only for a job well done and not simply because the raid may reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

Rather, the SEALs also may have helped save a chunk of money for the United States – and just when it really needs to.

With the Al Qaeda leader gone, Americans have gained some peace of mind about their security. And that could bring a “peace dividend” if the price tag for the so-called “war on terror” can be reduced.

To be sure, Al Qaeda and its affiliates will likely remain active to some degree despite the death of their top jihadist. And the US still needs military assets like the SEALs, just as much as air passengers will probably need to take off their shoes for the Transportation Security Administration.

But with bin Laden’s demise, the US can more soberly assess the risks of terrorism, perhaps with less of the emotional rhetoric and partisan competition that has driven up security spending beyond a measure of reasonableness.

Bin Laden himself had come to realize that even small acts of terror can create such fear in Americans that their spending on security would help drive the US into dangerous debt. (Self-inflicted moves, like excessive spending on health entitlements and subsidies that created the housing bubble, already have done the bulk of the financial damage.)

He learned a key lesson from his days in fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. That war “bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt,” bin Laden said, and Al Qaeda can also bleed “America to the point of bankruptcy.”

Just how much has the US spent so far in fighting terrorist groups like Al Qaeda?

Calculations vary widely, and they sometimes depend on the perspective of economists. Any reckoning has to take into account that spending so far has likely prevented another catastrophic attack like 9/11, saving billions. And as always, it’s difficult to put a price tag on saving human lives.

The highest estimates go up to $3 trillion over 15 years, or about a quarter of one year’s US economic output. By comparison, US military spending during the cold war was about six times that amount.

With so much secrecy in hundreds of agencies from the CIA to Homeland Security, exact public figures on spending are near impossible. It is easier to tally up outlays for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports that $1.28 trillion has been appropriated for those wars so far. The costs will keep rising even as those wars wind down. Another study by two academics estimates the cost of homeland security, including air passenger screening, at close to $1 trillion since 2001.

President Bush set a standard of “zero tolerance” for another 9/11-style attack. He achieved his goal during his time in office, but at a high cost in blood and treasure. And such a high bar leaves little room for assessing risks that can contain spending.

Mr. Obama has accelerated the Bush drawdown in Iraq but punched up spending in Afghanistan. Last month, he asked for deep review of America’s security outlook.

The demise of bin Laden provides an opportune moment for a more realistic discussion on security risks and spending. The US should not again fall into bin Laden’s trap of overreacting by spending too much to avoid risks that may be too small.

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