24 October 2007

Iraq War: Round #1

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

The Bush administration’s path to the Iraq War was twisted. It gave three main reasons for going to war: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and war would help establish a beachhead for democracy in the Middle East. On the first justification, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Advisor, eventually had to admit that "Turns out, we were wrong." On the second reason Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eventually conceded about there was no strong evidence of the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The third goal has been largely forgotten.

The Bush administration’s conduct of the war has been amateurish. The administration vastly underestimated the cost of the war. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that Iraq would "finance its own reconstruction." In addition, the administration went in with inadequate troop levels, sub par protection for troops, and inadequate post-invasion plans.

However, in deciding what to do now, past incompetence is irrelevant. So is the fact that the U.S. has already dumped vast amounts of blood and treasure into the war. This is because sunk costs (costs that have already been paid for and that cannot be recovered) are irrelevant in deciding what will bring about the best results.

We should probably get out of Iraq as soon as possible. The costs of the war are mounting at an incredible pace. On one estimate, as of September 2007 the U.S. had already directly spent at least $454 billion on the war. According to the Guardian, the U.S. is spending about $10 billion a week on it and this number is going up. According to Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, if the troops are withdrawn by 2010 the total war costs will likely be at least $1 trillion and stand a good chance of being more than $2 trillion. The two researchers claim that a quarter of the $2 trillion could have put social security on firm ground for the next seventy-five years.

The human costs, which are part of the above costs, are also significant. There have been 3,834 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, 28,276 physically wounded, and almost 50,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, according to one controversial study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, by June 2006 over 600,000 Iraqis have been violently killed because of the war. While it is not clear whether this should be considered part of the U.S.’s cost-benefit analysis, the large amount of killing is troubling nonetheless.

The benefits of the war are less clear and stand a good chance of evaporating. Christopher Hitchens points out that the U.S. has had some success in defeating Al Qaeda. This was done in part in part by going on the offensive against them and in part politically isolating them from the Sunni tribes that might have otherwise supported them. However, the problem here is that the gains are temporary and can be reversed. Even General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and proponent of continued U.S. effort there, in his report to Congress indicated that rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would result in Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground.

Nor is it clear that Al Qaeda would continue to target the U.S. if we withdrew from the Middle East. Al Qaeda previously attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, a U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1995, the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and a warship (the USS Cole) in 2000, but there is good reason to think that these attacks were in part motivated by the U.S. military presence in the Middle East following the previous war against Iraq.

On the other hand, the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites will likely lead to the country dividing, with different regions falling under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Kurds getting autonomy. It is not clear if this is bad because the former countries might not tolerate the presence of Al Qaeda and because this fits in with basic principles of self-determination. The United States Government Accountability Office also takes a dim view of the Iraqi government we are propping up. In its September 1, 2007 report on the government, the GAO reports that it failed eleven out of eighteen benchmarks of progress. Among the alarming failings was its inability to reduce the level of sectarian violence and eliminate militia control of local security forces. The GAO report also indicates that the violence level continues to skyrocket with 2007 being the most violent year yet (measured in terms of total average daily attacks).

There is a real question to whether preventing the looming civil war is a wise use of our resources. There is a real debate as to whether continuing the Iraq war weakens terrorism. War critics claim that it galvanized Al Qaeda, inspired insurgent violence, and provided terrorists with an opportunity for recruitment and training. For example, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (summarizing the findings of a number of intelligence agencies) stated that "The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." In addition, it is not clear that we have made long-term gains. General Petraeus admitted as much when he noted rapid withdrawal of American forces now would result in the disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces and an increase in sectarian violence.

In addition, our presence in Iraq moves us closer to war with Iran. General Petraeus noted that Iran’s actions promote violence in Iraq. Members of the Bush administration and Congress have also stated that Iran is helping terrorists attack U.S. troops. The longer we are there, the more we ratchet up our anger at Iran and strengthen our claim to strike out against it in self-defense. Such a war would probably be more expensive and bloody than the one in Iraq.

In the end the costs of the war are clear and massive. The benefits are less clear because the gains against Al Qaeda are temporary and subject to reversal and because our presence might be galvanizing Islamic terrorists. In addition, Iraq stands a good chance of splitting apart and it is not clear if we want to get caught between warring neighbors. Our presence is also ratcheting up tension with Iran. Even if our presence in Iraq prevented a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is unclear whether an attack, especially if conventional, would be more expensive than the fortune we are spending there.


The Objectivist said...

Note one thing that I left out is that if we stay the course in Iraq, this is going to encourage similar military actions that are unrelated to our security. E.g., Clinton's war against Serbia, Reagan's having troops in Lebanon, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and arguably WWI.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I wonder what you think about the Democrats who were voted into office in large part to end the war and then decided not to do this. I wonder if you have as much contempt for this change in plans as I do.

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The Constructivist said...

Sorry, O, I'm in a hole and can't give a substantive response. But yes I am pissed off at most American politicians these days, more than usual, including Democrats.

The Objectivist said...

I am pretty disgusted with them as well (with the exception of Ron Paul). Worse yet, we're going to elect candidates for both parties (Clinton and Giuliani or Thompson) who are vague and committed to very little in future policies. What a mess.