The recent 10 year anniversary of the Iraq war brought forth a flood of retrospective analyses, many dedicated to answering the vexed question of whether it was worth it. In reading them, one is struck by the arguments of those who remain wedded to the ideological arguments made at the time, many of whom were part of the administration of George W. Bush.
The most common argument these people make is “it is too soon to properly assess the results.” Iraq will eventually come good and we will all one day thank the Bush Administration for its principled actions. The fact that Saddam was a very bad man and the world is better off without him is a key sub-text. The more ambitious authors link the outbreak of the Arab Spring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, under the tenuous logic that it showed the region that a tyrant can be deposed (although linking the actions of the U.S. military to remove an enemy of the U.S. with the efforts of the people of Tunisia and Egypt to remove tyrants who had been supported by the U.S. until just before they were toppled is somewhat forced).
The real question is whether whatever good came from the war might have been achieved without it and its terrible costs.
This profoundly self-serving set of arguments does not stand up to scrutiny. It is too easy to say “wait until everything is better” to justify a terrible mistake. The real question is whether whatever good came from the war might have been achieved without it and its terrible costs. There is every chance it might have been.
We are told that the proudest achievements of the invasion are that Saddam is gone, Iraq no longer threatens its neighbours and Iraq is a democracy (well, let’s not stress that last one too much). Make no mistake, Saddam was a terrible man. But he was in a box of sanctions enforced by a ring of military forces around his country and he posed no serious threat to the region in the lead-up to the invasion. The enforcement of the sanctions cost something to maintain, but it cannot have cost the over $800 billion the invasion has cost the U.S. taxpayer (several trillions, if you count the long-term indirect costs). And it certainly would not have cost 4,500 U.S. dead and over 30,000 wounded.
But, apologists of the war say, Saddam was a menace to his people, who were suffering under both his rule and under the sanctions. True enough, but 150,000 odd Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of the fighting after the Iraqi invasion, with perhaps as many as 650,000 additional indirect deaths. Large parts of the economy have been ruined. These numbers are broadly comparable with the deaths and economic suffering attributed to the sanctions regime. Simply put, one wonders whether Iraqis would have suffered as much had Saddam remained, as it cost them to remove him. Credible arguments can be made either way; it is not a ‘slam dunk’ that the invasion saved Iraqi lives. And it cannot be known whether Saddam would still be in power today had the noose around his country continued to tighten.
One can argue that the war in Afghanistan would have gone better had the U.S. not taken its eye off that ball, and not taken the resources it needed to prosecute that war off to Iraq. And oh yes, there was no relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda before the U.S. invaded, but Iraq became a splendid base for Al Qaeda afterwards. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government today is not particularly friendly towards the U.S., the region, or the hopes of the Arabs for democracy and change. It maintains close ties to Iran, and is allowing that country to use its airspace in order to send weapons to prop up the Assad regime in Syria.
Of course, one can argue that had the invasion and occupation been done better, the losses may not have been so great or the outcomes so bleak. Certainly the incompetence and hubris with which the Bush Administration handled things (most notably in dismantling the few Iraqi institutions which could have smoothed the transition without having a clue to what would replace them) is staggering. Many experts at the time pointed out that these were foolish policies—a point rarely mentioned by those who wrote apologetic retrospectives to mark the 10 year anniversary.
Whatever those intent on trying to justify the war may claim, they cannot escape that it was not prosecuted in the cause of the freedom of the Iraqi people. It was an ill-conceived policy of trying to fundamentally alter the direction of the Middle East—one that has backfired spectacularly and eroded support for the U.S. throughout the region. Maybe it will all look better at the 20 year anniversary, but don’t count on it.