Counterfactual history

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What would have happened if we had not taken military action against Iraq in March 2003? Any assessment of the wisdom of that military action needs to take that question into account. Of course we cannot know exactly what would have happened—just as George W. Bush in March 2003 could not have known. But both decision makers and critics must make some estimate of the likely outcomes of action and inaction and take them into account when assessing the wisdom of decisions.

Here are two assessments of the likely course of events if we had not gone into Iraq in March 2003. First is a report by three scholars at the American Enterprise Institute of what likely would have happened had we not taken action.

Conclusions:

• Continuation of the pre-March 2003 conditions would have cost, in dollar terms, between about half and about two thirds of the cost of military operations in Iraq.

• Iraqis would have been much worse off economically had the United States stayed out of Iraq.

• More Iraqis would have been killed under a continuation of the Saddam Hussein regime than have died since March 2003.

As the writers acknowledge, there's room for argument here: There always is in counterfactuals. But the point is that a continuation of the 1991–2003 "containment" policy had high costs both for Americans and for Iraqis. These should not be ignored when we consider the wisdom of going to war.

I also recommend Gerard Baker's counterfactual column in the Times of London. Baker looks not only at what might have happened in Iraq but what might have happened in Iran:

In Iran the theocrats' regime interpreted Saddam's reprieve as a green light. Iraq had defied international law and the U.N. for more than a decade. But Saddam had survived; indeed he was looking stronger than he ever had.
An unknown scientist from Pakistan, A. Q. Khan, slipped into Tehran from Pakistan. With its Libyan ally the Iranian government accelerated its nuclear program. The two issued a statement saying they would use their military muscle to annihilate Israel. In March 2004 Islamists attacked railway stations in Madrid. Commentators condemned the attacks but noted that these were almost certainly the fault of U.S. and western policy — the plight of the Palestinians, the suffering of Iraqis, the unwelcome presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
In July 2005 it was London's turn, and again it was the U.K. and its allies that carried most of the blame. "Blair's Bombs" said one magazine cover, attacking Britain's slavish support of the U.S. in the Middle East.
As pressure grew on governments, massive protests in solidarity with the Iraqi people were held around the world. When the U.S. and Britain blocked a Security Council resolution to lift the sanctions, the other U.N. members simply ignored them.

A recent Fox News poll suggests that ordinary Americans are doing a better job than mainstream media of keeping these counterfactual considerations in mind:

More than 7 in 10 Americans (74 percent) agree that the United States and the world are safer today without Saddam Hussein in power, including 56 percent who "strongly" agree. These results have remained fairly stable over time and are in line with surveys conducted in 2004 and 2005.

While opinion on whether the Iraqis are better off has been consistently positive, it has moved around a bit. Currently, a clear 59 percent majority of Americans think the Iraqi people are better off today because of the U.S.-led military action, the same number as in early 2005, but down from 64 percent in mid-2005 and a high of 74 percent (March 2004).