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Was the Iraq War Worth It?

Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of International Relations and History, Boston University Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Michael Ignatieff, Professor, University of Toronto Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution
Interviewer(s): Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
December 15, 2011

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Was the nine-year U.S. war in Iraq worth it? Boston University's Andrew Bacevich says the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, but stresses that the "disastrous legacy" of the war transcends lives lost or dollars spent. CFR's Max Boot says it may be premature to assess the benefits but there remains a chance for Iraq to serve as "a model for the Arab Spring." Michael Ignatieff, an academic, human rights advocate, and initial supporter of the war, says groups like the Kurds and the Shia in Iraq have gained. But it's "difficult to believe the war was worth it," he says, given the damage to U.S. credibility, the strengthening of Iran, and the lack of stability in Iraq. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution expresses hope that over time the "the war will not be seen historically as a mistake or failure."

Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of International Relations and History, Boston University

As framed, the question invites a sober comparison of benefits and costs -- gain vs. pain. The principal benefit derived from the Iraq War is easily identified: as the war's defenders insist with monotonous regularity, the world is indeed a better place without Saddam Hussein. Point taken.

Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage -- or is it simple decency -- to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam's removal. That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended -- probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.

Yet 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.

Central to [the war's] 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.

One senses that this was what the likes of [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz (urged on by militarists cheering from the sidelines and with George W. Bush serving as their enabler) intended all along. By leaving intact and even enlarging the policies that his predecessor had inaugurated, President Barack Obama has handed these militarists an unearned victory. As they drag themselves from one "overseas contingency operation" to the next, American soldiers must reckon with the consequences. So too will the somnolent American people be obliged to do, perhaps sooner than they think.

Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Critics will claim that no gains could be worth the price we paid -- over 4,400 lost lives and untold hundreds of billions of dollars. But we paid a far higher price in the Korean War (36,000 dead). Few would have thought in 1953 that this war, which ended with a deadlocked and ravaged peninsula, was a raging success. The outcome looks considerably better nearly six decades later, now that South Korea has become one of the most prosperous and freest countries in the world.

It is wildly premature to claim that Iraq could become another South Korea -- although the latter started off far poorer than the former and had just as little experience with democracy (which is to say none). Yet it is not out of the realm of possibility.

If we were keeping troops in Iraq past Dec. 31, the chances of Iraq achieving its full potential would be much greater. As things stand now, the prospects of a catastrophic failure have gone up.

Just as we do not know what Iraq will become under Nouri al-Maliki, we do not know what it would have been under Saddam Hussein. That rapacious dictator, we now know, was not effectively boxed in by sanctions; he was violating the UN embargo and plotting to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction.

The fact that he is gone is a good thing. The fact that Iraq is developing, however slowly and imperfectly, into a representative democracy is also a good thing.

My worry is that progress is tenuous and reversible. If we were keeping troops in Iraq past Dec. 31, the chances of Iraq achieving its full potential would be much greater. As things stand now, the prospects of a catastrophic failure have gone up. But there is still a chance of Iraq developing as a model for the "Arab Spring", thereby redeeming the great sacrifices made by so many to defeat the extremists who threatened its future.

Michael Ignatieff, Professor, University of Toronto

The question to begin with is: worth it to whom? If we start the inventory of gains and losses inside Iraq itself, the war was unquestionably worth it to the Kurds who gained a state within a state and look set to gain still more from oil and gas development on their territory. The Shias in the south, always repressed under Saddam, have made gains too, though they face the menace of continuing sectarian violence. For many Sunnis too, fear of continuing sectarian violence has to be balanced against the gains in freedom, large and small, that have been won since the destruction of Saddam's "republic of fear."

The claims of those who gained from Saddam's defeat must be set against the claims of the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, who perished in the invasion, aftermath and sectarian warfare that followed. For them, the loss is absolute, and viewed from their perspective, the question itself – "was the war worth it"-- might not appear worth asking.

The "Arab Spring" indicates that regimes that only offer their people repression and delusion eventually collapse under the weight of their incompetence, corruption, and self-deception. This might have been Saddam's fate, too.

When we widen out the field of inquiry still further and ask, was the war worth it from the point of view of international law, it becomes obvious that a war waged without UN Security Council approval and sold to a doubtful public on the grounds that there was an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction did damage to the fabric of international law and set back the legitimacy of military intervention everywhere.

If we add the damage that mendacious claims about WMD did to U.S. credibility, the relative strengthening of Iran in the region and the continuing failure of Iraq to achieve democratic stability, it becomes ever more difficult to believe the war was worth it. Instead, what becomes more compelling is the road not taken: a campaign of sanctions, diplomatic quarantine, isolation, and military deterrence designed to pry the Saddam regime's fingers from power. The "Arab Spring" indicates that regimes that only offer their people repression and delusion eventually collapse under the weight of their incompetence, corruption, and self-deception. This might have been Saddam's fate, too and it might have been achieved without costs that weakened the United States at home and abroad.

Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution

Was the Iraq war worth it? I don't know.

The costs have been enormous. Some were inevitable. Some were the function of poor preparation and a very poor start to the operation and occupation. I made mistakes in my Iraq analysis over the years at times, but one thing I surely got right was to warn from 2001 onward that any war would be very difficult and challenging -- as in a 2001 Washington Post op-ed with Philip Gordon that provoked Ken Adelman's well-known "cakewalk" op-ed in reply [Washington Post link not available]. Gordon and I predicted no cakewalk.

I remain hopeful that over time, the benefits will be substantial and palpable enough to make the debate [over the war] interesting.

That said, I am still hopeful that the war will not be seen historically as a mistake or failure. At this point, it would be insensitive and also highly premature to argue that the costs have been somehow worth it. The costs, human and financial and political, have, as noted, been huge. The benefits remain hypothetical and immeasurable (e.g., what would Saddam and perhaps his sons have done in the future if allowed to remain in power, with sanctions eroding?) or conjectural and speculative at this stage (will Iraq become a stable, peaceful democracy?).

So any interim assessment on my part at this stage would have to voice skepticism that the war was worth it. But again, as noted, I remain hopeful that over time, the benefits will be substantial and palpable enough to make the debate interesting. We are not there yet, however.

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