Iraq and I-95: A Question of Priorities

It is commonplace to state that the United States is spending about $10 billion a month on the Iraq War, and estimates of the total tab for the entire enterprise are as varied as the imagination of the person doing the estimation. One trillion seems a not unreasonable guess. Admitting that much of the money is being borrowed, this drain on the treasury is not coming directly out of our pockets–we’ll let our grandchildren pay back the Chinese eventually.

One question that gets asked only occasionally is if there are not better, more urgent uses for the treasure being poured into Iraq. Almost everyone agrees there are, although Republicans who support the war are less likely to enumerate them, since they presumably believe the cost is worth it.

Some of the starkness of alternative needs struck me last week, when my wife and I motored up the eastern coast from our home on Hilton Head Island to Boston for the American Political Science Association meeting. The mischosen route we traversed was I-95, the vital ribbon of concrete and asphalt from Maine to the tip of Florida. If there is any piece of the American infrastructure that cries out for some (arguably all) of that $10 billion a month, it is I-95.

For those who have not made the error of travelling I-95 for a substantial distance recently, it is a mess. Most of it is still four lane, except around the major cities, where it occasionally widens. The volume of traffic is clearly excessive to the road’s capacity. When all conditions are absolutely ideal (weather, number of cars, etc.), it is barely adequate. When anything happens (road construction, accidents, or just more cars and trucks than it can handle), the road breaks down into gridlock. My best guess is that I lost about 10 percent of gas mileage on I-95 simply sitting and idling in gridlocked traffic jams. It would take one of two solutions to bring back some sensible level of stasis to this road: massive reconstruction to widen and improve it, or a massive reduction in traffic. Anyone want to bet on the latter?

I-95 illustrates, in my mind, the perversion of priorities that the Iraq War and similar initiatives represent. The administration announced today plans to send $1 billion to Georgia, a drop in the bucket, but not when one adds up all the foreign bills being incurred while the infrastructure here literally crumbles.

I have never thought of myself as an isolationist, but rather as a liberal internationalist. The United States should be active in the world, but does that necessarily mean responding to crises everywhere (including the ones we create, like Iraq) with expensive military solutions?

It has been a consequence of the unilateralism of the last eight years that the United States has attempted to exorcise foreign demons at the price of bridges, highways, and other elements of the American infrastructure. Is that what we want from the next President? The state of I-95 seems to me a pretty good metaphor for why the United States should get out of Iraq.

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