Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Was the Iraq war worth it?

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2011 - 10:52 am.

    Or just see today’s Doonesbury at

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2011 - 11:10 am.

    Shouldn’t that be “weapons of no mas destruction”?

    At any rate, we went from a sectarian dictator who was no threat to us (except for oil profits) to a sectarian dictator who is no threat to us (except for oil profits).
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    or, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana).

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/21/2011 - 11:22 am.

    A simple “no” suffices.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/21/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    As it turned out, the mistake was not in removing Saddam Hussein, but in the manner in which it was done.

    George Bush’s biggest mistake was in not following the Powell doctrine. If you’re going to engage in war, go in with massive force, eliminate the enemy as quickly as possible, and go home.

    While the dash to Baghdad was historic in its speed and scope, the audacity and logistics of which will be taught at the war college for decades, it was wasted in the end because Bush lacked the resolve to finish them off. He allowed Saddam’s army to simply disburse instead of taking them all prisoner and they, of course, then became the basis for the insurgency that fought our occupation for almost a decade.

    This was a totally misguided strategy geared to pleasing the doves at home and elsewhere to show critics of the action that we could fight a kinder, gentler war.

    Well, nonsense. Granted, my military experience required the unflinching willingness to vaporize the enemy with nuclear weapons, that’s exactly what this situation called for. Given that the “war” was pretty much confined to one city, Baghdad, after the initial invasion, I would have given everyone 72 hours to leave town (how much notice did Truman give?) and simply nuked the bleepers. Seriously. War over.

    Think of all the lives and treasure that would have been saved simply because a commander-in-chief wanted to appear compassionate.

    Lessons learned.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2011 - 01:20 pm.

    Good point!
    If you have to resort to nuance to justify a war, it’s not justifiable.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/21/2011 - 01:56 pm.

    “If things go badly, it will be because Obama took the troops out too soon.”


  7. Submitted by Tom Clark on 12/21/2011 - 02:00 pm.

    Mr. Tester’s claim about the dissolution of the Iraqi Army being a key factor in the later insurgency is sadly mistaken. President Bush initially wanted to keep the Iraqi Army intact but it was administration advisors Bremer, Wolfowitz and Feith who wanted it disbanded and they got their way. The result was to provide discontented soldiers for the insurgency, on both the Sunni and Shia sides. Keeping the Iraqi Army intact (not imprisoned) would have helped keep Iraq more stable by being a unifying national force. Instead, Iraq suffered through a civil war that dragged on for years and still smoulders.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2011 - 04:25 pm.

    George Bush, Dick Cheney, and a handful of advisors have so much blood on their hands that, were there such a thing as justice, they would drown in it.

    Support for the invasion was encouraged by half-truths and outright lies. The Vice-President “outed” an active covert CIA agent because her husband pointed out that the nuclear threat being trumpeted from the White House didn’t exist. Mr. Tester’s assertion that “everybody” knew Valerie Plame was CIA is empty and meaningless. Were a Democratic Senator (e.g., John Kerry) to have done the same thing at that time, he’d be in prison now, or worse. Aiding the enemy is treason. “Outing” an active CIA agent is aiding the enemy. Dick Cheney is a traitor, and ought to be in prison, where he can die on a metal cot from his umpteenth heart attack.

    Nearly 4,500 young Americans are dead as a result of administration lies and half-truths – more, I might point out, than were killed by the despicable terrorists of September 11, 2001 – tens of thousands of faithful military personnel wounded, some so grievously that their lives will forever be diminished, and many tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, more tens of thousands wounded. All totally and completely unjustifiable on the basis of the administration claims made at the time.

    Saddam Hussein may have been a thug, but there are other nations with thug rulers (North Korea comes immediately to mind, since theirs just died of apparently natural causes), and unless we’re going to invade them all, and kill all of the thugs, the decision about which one to assassinate this time is a purely political and moral one. The Bush administration fails on both counts, and to the degree that they defended the policy and kept it going, so is the Obama administration.

    Tom Clark makes a salient point in #7, as does Paul Brandon in #2, but James Hamilton’s answer is the most concise.

  9. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/21/2011 - 04:46 pm.

    “Given that the “war” was pretty much confined to one city, Baghdad, after the initial invasion”

    I’m pretty sure that Dennis’s posts at this site are snark. It simply is not possible for anyone to consistently get the facts as wrong as he does as often as he does.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/21/2011 - 07:28 pm.

    Pundits can say whatever they wish about Iraq.
    But that doesn’t make it so. The US never achieved it’s stated goals in Iraq. We didn’t accomplish much of anything.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2011 - 08:46 pm.

    The number of American combat deaths in Iraq and Pashtunistan understate the total damage by a couple of orders of magnitude.

    In a time of limited resources (has there ever been otherwise?) the trillions spent on killing Iraqis could have better reducing some numbers like the number of -yearly- avoidable medical deaths (estimates over 100,000) and traffic deaths (about 50,000/yr and mostly avoidable).
    Simply talking about dollars obscures the real costs.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/21/2011 - 09:47 pm.

    There is no question that the Iraq war added substantially to the federal debt. This was the first time that the government cut taxes as it went to war. The result: a war completely funded by borrowing. U.S. debt soared from $6.4 trillion in March 2003 to $10 trillion in 2008 (before the financial crisis); at least a quarter of that increase is directly attributable to the war. And that doesn’t include future health care and disability payments for veterans, which will add another half-trillion dollars to the debt.

    Re-imagining history is a perilous exercise. Nonetheless, it seems clear that without this war, not only would America’s standing in the world be higher, our economy would be stronger. The question today is: Can we learn from this costly mistake?

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/21/2011 - 10:28 pm.

    In some ways this question simply cannot be made coherent. The was no legitimate self defense rational, even if there had been WMDs. This was not a reaction to any aggression.

    I think the most basic fact about the US invasion of Iraq is that it was ultimately illegal, and morally indefensible. I will not be surprised if surviving administration officials someday find themselves on the wrong end of a war crimes investigation.

    The basic moral question is actually very simple. As many as a million Iraqis have are dead that would otherwise be alive. Hundreds of thousands have been wounded. Tens of thousands of children will grow up without mothers and/or fathers, and tens of thousands will grow up without arms, legs, eyesight, etc. Now regardless of the political, regional, or historical outcomes, by what right did US leaders decide that any Iraqi child, let alone tens of thousands, or any Iraqi, let alone hundreds of thousands, is better off dead or disabled for life, than they would have been living and whole under Saddam Hussein? How did people in the White House decide it was their right to make that call? Is living under any government worse than being dead or deformed, or orphaned? And how do people on the other side of the world claim to have the right to make that decision for other people? We were NOT invited, there was no uprising underway, our military assistance was NOT requested by any Iraqis.

    How can you ask in any coherent way if such a war was worth it?

  14. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2011 - 07:28 am.

    Paul, you are wrong on virtually every count.

    Go back to the first gulf war and follow the timeline forward. The gulf war never ended. Hostilities were ended after 30 days because Saddam made concessions when he was kicked out of Kuwait, but he never lived up to them, which included shooting at our pilots covering the UN-mandated no-fly zone.

    The invasion of Iraq was the end game of the first gulf war. And every politician in this country, from both parties, and Clinton administration officials (I’ll post the YouTube links to refresh your memory if you’d like) agreed that Saddam must go because of his weapons programs and the chance of his portable WMD landing in the hands of Islamofascists.

    The mistake was in the execution of the costly and ill-conceived occupation, not the regime change itself. What should have been a 60-day mission turned into a nine-year mission. It’s scary how people so quickly forget history.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/22/2011 - 08:46 am.


    The Gulf War ended on Feb 28, 1991, this is a historical fact. Nowhere in any of the multitude of rationals offered by the Bush II, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Rice was there an explanation that we ending the first war. Even they had better sense than to make that bogus argument. The US was never attacked, or even threatened by Iraq. No credible or viable voice for the Iraqi people requested our intervention, or occupation. This is simply history. There is nothing in our constitution, international law, or even common sense that grants our government the right to change another countries regime at will with military force.

    I note you made no attempt whatsoever to answer my question, what gives our government the right to decide that people in another country, one that has not attacked us and poses no clear and present danger, are better off dead than living under their current regime? Neither the invasion or the occupation are morally defensible.

Leave a Reply