The Costs of Iraq Are Clear While the Benefits Are Fuzzy
Don't criticize Bush, criticize the war's poor military planning
March 20, 2013
Was the Iraq war worth it? This question is difficult to address. The wounds are still too raw, the dissension and division in our country that resulted from the war still too vivid, to permit reflective and dispassionate assessment. I am still wrestling with the emotions of it myself, as are many Americans, especially those who gave so much in the war and who are always in our thoughts and prayers.
First a word on the initial decision to invade. I believe the Bush administration has been criticized too severely for this decision. Whether you agree with it or not, I do not believe it was motivated by adventurism, hubris, neo-imperialism, or spite. It was not, and should not have been portrayed by the Bush administration as, a response to 9/11 in any direct way. But nonetheless, the invasion was intended to unseat one of the worst and most dangerous dictators of the late 20th century. That cannot be all bad.
That said, I am willing to criticize strongly the poor military and political planning that went into the preparations (or lack thereof) for how to administer Iraq once Saddam was gone. Wishful thinking by the Bush administration and some elements of the military characterized that process far too much.
In terms of the cost-benefit calculus of the war, the costs are, alas, all too evident. Nearly 5,000 dead Americans, another 20,000 or more permanently disabled, and $1 trillion in expenses. At least 100,000 Iraqis dead. A U.S. administration forever tarred by an unpopular war. Goodwill towards America squandered throughout the world. Opportunity costs in Afghanistan, where the war effort languished for many years as we devoted most resources to the Iraq conflict.
By contrast, the benefits of the war are generally more hypothetical, intangible, or unmeasurable. Some form of a democracy in Iraq instead of the Hussein family, though with uncertain prospects for the former at this point. Confidence that Iraq will not develop weapons of mass destruction anytime soon, even if it turned out that Saddam was not holding the widely expected chemical and biological arms himself when we invaded. Less threat to Iraq's neighbors from an aggressive regime in Baghdad than under Saddam—even if the possibility of renewed civil war within Iraq itself cannot yet be definitively dismissed.
Back to the big question: Was it worth it? By my calculus, the costs are clear and large, the benefits are fuzzy and fragile. But I do hope that, if the latter firm up in the years ahead, someday historians will have a healthy debate about whether the benefits have been on a par with the losses suffered along the way.