Have you asked yourself the question: How would our lives and the fate of the nation be any different if we were not engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria? We are told that it is in the interest of our national security that we are there. If you happen to assess that answer you may have to conclude that our leaders have cost this country $4 trillion for little or no reason.

The concept of national security got its official start at the end of World War II with the National Security Act of 1947, which was designed to reorganize the military, foreign policy and intelligence activities. The initial focus for the concept was the military and political security of the country. That has subsequently been added to with concerns over economic, environmental, energy, natural resources, human rights and most recently cybersecurity.


The concept of national security is rather complex. It is further complicated by the role as hegemonic power that the U.S. has chosen to assume in the world. As the hegemon, it is required that the state maintain a defense system that competing powers will not attack militarily for fear of being overwhelmed by the response.

What we have come to learn is our military defense system provides only one element of defense, since asymmetric non-state initiated attacks like 9/11 have upended our concept of traditional warfare. The same can be said for cyber warfare as it has become an alarming and constant threat to intellectual property, financial transactions and vital communications. Changes in the energy equation have also modified our ideas regarding national security. With the surging oil production resulting from new exploitation techniques like hydraulic fracturing and a meaningful program to install renewable energy capacity, the U.S. is on course to become the world's largest oil producer and a leader in alternative energy generation. The combination radically reduces the need for imported oil.

The other elements of national security, political threats, economic warfare, environmental threats, human rights abuses and natural resource exploitation have important impacts on our thinking but have less of an impact on policy. Quite simply, we are not going to attack Russia over Ukraine. We are not going to war with China because it has a state-run system with restricted civil liberties. We are not invading Brazil because it is cutting forests the size of Rhode Island each year and gradually restricting the reproduction of oxygen for the planet. There is little more than jawboning that attends the issue of human rights or women's rights.

Embracing the concept of national security requires that expenditures be justified as adding to or detracting from our security as a nation. Have we added to or diminished our security with incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria? The question can be assessed by taking each of the elements of national security and testing them and then making a judgment as to the cost the U.S. incurs or has incurred in pursuing these assaults.

If you take oil out of the equation, in what way does the Middle East impact on our national security? The only military threat we face is the asymmetrical non-state terrorists' attacks. These have been handled by increasing intelligence sharing among nations, treating these threats as police matters and a vigorous homeland security response. Our military engagement has only increased the terrorist threat by drawing more dissidents to the radical causes represented by these non-state actors. In a different vein — our historic ties to Israel — its perceived threats from Iran's nuclear program seem to have been handled with economic sanctions, a significant decline in oil prices and Iran's preoccupation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Add to this is the increasingly conservative profile of Israel over the past 20 years. It has become quite clear that Israel will determine its own destiny and only roils at or sabotages U.S. involvement in the fiction referred to as the "peace process."

There is no political threat to our system and to the extent that we, as a nation, support the exportation of democracy, it has been a rude awakening to see its failures in sectarian societies. Similarly, when you assess the character of the governments we have installed in Kabul and Bagdad, you have to wonder how we are more secure with record heroin production and rampant corruption recorded in Afghanistan and lethal sectarian disputes in Iraq. Given the political circumstances, one should conclude that the Middle East really should be left to its own devices to determine where and how it chooses "to address modernity" (as Andrew Bacevich, military historian, says).

The economic element is hugely impacted by the reduced dependency on oil imports. The irony here is that the U.S.'s largest source of imported oil is Canada (20 percent of our imports) and Canada is in a position to replace virtually all of the imports from the Middle East (with the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, that being the irony for progressives). About the only thing that we sell to the Middle East is military equipment, and that is largely paid for by the foreign aid we provide. We do not have an economic interest in the Middle East except to the extent that U.S. oil companies operate there.

In addition to its territorial and military ambitions, Iran does pose something of a threat in the cyber war aspect of national security, in part because the U.S. is alleged to have contributed to the Stuxnet virus that damaged over 1,000 of Iran's 19,000 centrifuges. Iran has launched attacks on various parts of the U.S. banking system. So far, however, no country in the world has threatened military action as a result of these or similar attacks.

It is hard to assess environmental, human rights, resource protection or women's rights in the context of the Middle East. In many ways it's like pushing on a string: It really gets nowhere. With the exception of humanitarian aid, there is little other than jawboning that has been the policy. The U.S. would be better off creating a huge cultural exchange program (in part, it already exists) and looking for the long-term benefit of indigenous players effecting change than trying to impose its will.

It is hard to come to any other conclusion that the national security of the United States does not require the size, scope or intensity of its current investment. It is hard to put a number on it, but the historical cost of involvement since 2003 is somewhere between $3 and $4 trillion and were we to stop immediately, the cost would continue as troops are withdrawn and damaged veterans attended to. What is particularly vexing is that the American voting public has voiced its opinion and the U.S.'s current leadership has failed to implement promises made. Likewise, it is clear that the current policy emanating from the White House is to "kick the can" down the road and let the next administration deal with it. So, not only have "we the people" not been treated to an honest assessment of why we are involved, we have political leaders without anything other than inertia guiding decisions. The waste of our resources using national security as the justification makes current policy hard to swallow, doubly so when you consider alternate uses like balanced fiscal budgets, rebuilt ports and highways, elimination of student debt, subsidies for renewable energy, medical research and development. And the list goes on. It is no fun knowing you have been sold a bill of goods and continue to hear the same hollow refrain.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.