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Was the Iraq war worth it?

Was the Iraq war worth it?
By Eric Black

The Council on Foreign Relations posed the headline question to four deep thinkers who had followed the story of the war closely, three of whom were more or less supportive of the war over the years (Max Boot, Michael O’Hanlon, Michael Ignatieff), and one unrelenting critics (Andrew Bacevich).

None said yes.

Ignatieff (former Harvard professor, now at U of Toronto after an intervening political career in Canada) changed the subject to “worth it for whom?” and ruled that there are gainers (for example, the Iraqi Kurds) and losers. But he judged harshly the war’s damage to the doctrines of international law (lack of U.N. authority).

O’Hanlon (of Brookings) managed to get on both sides (and not for the first time). It would be “insensitive” to suggest at present that the war was worth it, but he hopes that after the passage of enough time, later developments demonstrating the long-term benefits will be enough to at least make for an “interesting” argument over the worth-it question.

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Boot (now of the Council on Foreign Relations) also bet on the future to redeem his past support for the war. In 1953 the Korean looked like a dumb idea, he argued. But the rise of South Korea to prosperity and democracy suggests otherwise now. Boot doesn’t actually venture much of an answer to worth-it, but lays down a marker. If things go badly, it will be because Obama took the troops out too soon.

Bacevich (retired U.S. colonel, now teaching at Boston University, lost a son in the war) has become a hero of mine for his books over recent years trying to strip the veil from the eyes of Americans about U.S. military interventions. His answer to the assigned question was the least equivocal, although he rejected the question as posed:

“In inviting a narrow cost-benefit analysis, the question-as-posed serves to understate the scope of the debacle engineered by the war’s architects. The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington’s decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint. War is U.S.”

Read all four short “worth-it?” essays here.

Let me associate myself with Bacevich’s analysis, except that I’m not sure the Iraq case is such a mold-breaker. The U.S. has long arrogated to itself the “right” (because it has the power) to intervene anywhere on any justification. It’s nice when, as in Iraq, the intervention results in the overthrow of a murderous thug dictator like Saddam Hussein. No question, he deserved to die in disgrace and didn’t deserve to live in palaces, lead a nation, or hold life-or-death power over millions.

But until the dawning of the (metaphorical) Age of Aquarius (“when peace will guide the planet and love will steer the stars”), there will be savage dictators controlling countries. Some will be allies of the U.S. (as Saddam was in the 80s) and some will have gained power with U.S. help (Pinochet, for just one example). At any given moment there will be several contenders for worst-dictator-in-the-world status and there will be voices calling for the U.S. overthrow of that dictator or moral, arsenal-of-democracy grounds.

Occasionally, the U.S. will — regretfully, reluctantly, after exhausting all other options (but almost always without getting advance U.N. authorization) — take the case. But the president who takes the case will not base it on the winner of the then-current worst-dictator-in-the-world competition (although that will be a talking point). Instead, the invasion/occupation/arming-of-a-local-proxy-force/covert CIA overthrow will be justified based on an always-somewhat-mysterious invocation of U.S. “interests,” sometimes geopolitical but often economic at their heart.

So the next time we are heading into a war of choice (and for the United States, they are almost all wars of choice) and the argument is made that the world will be a better place without (name-of-dictator-here), we should really ask ourselves pretty seriously how that particular world-a-better-place factor weighs in the war-or-not-war calculation and whether we propose, after knocking off the worst dictator, to move on to the next worse.

Of course, in the Iraq case, there were the “weapons of mass destruction,” so that made it easier.