Have We Spent Trillions on Wars?

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed at the presidential debate last week that the wars in the Middle East "have cost us trillions of dollars." That's true: the U.S. has spent $2 trillion since 2001 directly designated as war spending. The number rises to $5 trillion or $6 trillion depending what exactly is counted, such as increases in the non-war defense budget, homeland security spending, or the future costs of veterans benefits.

This is an update to our previous factcheck when we found President Trump's claim largely false that we have spent $7 trillion on wars in the Middle East.

How Much Has Been Spent So Far?

The federal government has spent $2 trillion between Fiscal Years (FY) 2001 and 2019 specifically designated for wars, either as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) or Global War on Terror funding before 2009. The definition of what the fund is spent on has shifted over time but includes operations and aid in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and the Philippines.

Other estimates have come up with higher totals by including more indirect costs, such as general counterterrorism spending and interest on the debt due to deficit-financed war spending. For instance, a 2019 report by Neta Crawford from the Brown University Costs of War project found that total post-9/11 war spending has totaled $5.4 trillion through 2020 and an additional minimum of $1 trillion for future benefits for veterans of these wars, based on a 2013 study from Linda Bilmes at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Another paper from the Costs of War project estimates that over the next 40 years, interest spending on the borrowed OCO spending (assuming all marginal war spending is borrowed) would total an additional $6.5 trillion over 40 years.

Category Cost
Direct Military Spending, 2001-2020  
Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) defense spending $2.0 trillion
OCO State Department and USAID spending $0.1 trillion
Post-9/11 defense base budget spending increase $0.9 trillion
Post 9/11 veterans spending $0.4 trillion
Subtotal, Direct Spending on Middle East $3.4 trillion
Plus, Associated Indirect War on Terror Spending, 2001-2020  
Homeland security/counterterrorism spending $1.1 trillion
Interest on OCO borrowing for wars $0.9 trillion
Subtotal, Spending on all War on Terror activities, including interest $5.4 trillion
Plus, Future Spending  
Future estimated spending on veterans' medical and disability, 2020-2059 $1.0 trillion
Future interest payments on past war spending, 2020-2059 $6.5 trillion
Total Present and Future Cost of War on Terror, 2001-2059 $12.9 trillion

Source: Brown University Costs of War Project, (summary table). All years are fiscal years. Numbers may not add due to rounding.

Senator Sanders's statements that trillions have been spent on wars is accurate. Since 2001, $2 trillion has been earmarked directly for OCO spending, but that number can rise as high as $5.4 trillion by including all past spending associated with the War on Terror, such as base defense spending increases, domestic counterterrorism, veterans benefits, and interest payments.

Claim: The U.S. has spent trillions on wars in the Middle East

Ruling: True

This Fiscal FactCheck is a part of our US Budget Watch 2020 project, which will explain, score, and fact check claims and policy proposals made during the 2020 campaign. If you think we missed an important claim and would like us to look into it, contact us at info@crfb.org and we'll do our best to look into it. Learn more about US Budget Watch 2020 here.