Invading Iraq was an idiotic idea. It was idiotic in 2001, idiotic in 2003, and idiotic today. It was idiotic in 2001 because Saddam wasn't a huge threat and rebuilding Iraq would require resources better used elsewhere. It was idiotic in 2003 for the same reasons, and because we had a clear enemy who attacked us. And it remains idiotic in retrospect.
A good decision-maker first looks honestly at the operative facts, carefully appraises the likely costs and benefits that will result from the decision, and carefully weighs the costs against the benefits. A poor decision-maker only looks at one side (usually benefits) before making the choice. When it comes to going to war, the biggest decision a country can make, the leadership and its people owe it to themselves to make the most sound decision possible.
Let's go through how we should approach going to war. The primary goal for American foreign policy is to maximize the security of the American people. To achieve those goals, the United States focuses on: (1) promoting regional stability; (2) forming strategic alliances with other countries; (3) neutralizing dangerous states and non-state actors, or minimize their chance to do harm; and (4) preventing the spread of weapons and nuclear materials. (Since economic prosperity and stability is the most important aspect of stability, the US promotes policies that increase trade and sustainable growth. And since democracy is the most stable form of government, spreading democracy tends to promote our security interests. Stopping the spread of antagonistic ideologies is also important.) Secondary goals of foreign policy include helping non-Americans in need and helping non-Americans in peril, and increasing the wealth of Americans.
With the goals in mind, let's see where Iraq fits in. In 2003, American policy experts knew that (1) most reliable intelligence suggest Saddam wasn't close to nuclear capability or a potential threat to attack Americans (having unconventional chemical weapons -- the WMDs everyone thought Saddam had -- didn't make him a grave threat to the US itself); (2) Iraq has no connection to Al Qaida; (3) Iraq is a glue-together nation that has serious underlying sectarian divisions; (4) it'll cost a lot of money and manpower to build democratic institutions; (5) most of the world were against invading Iraq as an act of first resort; (6) it's likely Al Qaida will use the invasion of Iraq as demonstration of a "clash of civilizations" and use it as a recruiting tool; and (7) there are more urgent threats to American security that requires our resources and attention.
So the foreseeable costs of the invasion are: (1) hundreds of billions of dollars in invasion and reconstruction; (2) hundreds to thousands of American casualties; (3) increase in jihadism and jihadist recruits; (4) increase in anti-Americanism worldwide; (5) military may be tied down in Iraq; (6) other, more immediate threats attack us or strengthen as our resources are devote to Iraq; (7) the possibility bad-case scenarios arising where a failed nation-state leads to a civil war, throwing the Middle East into turmoil.
The foreseeable benefits of the invasion are: (1) removal of an evil dictator; (2) removal of a threat to our allies in the region; (3) liberation of an oppressed people; (4) Iraq as a forwarding base for American military operations (so we can get our troops out of Saudi Arabia); (5) a stable and secure source for oil exports; and (6) best case scenario of a shining example of a pro-Western Arab democracy in the Middle East (the neocon domino theory, the next logical step, is just too unrealistic to posit here).
When you look at the costs vs. benefits, you see that most of the costs would greatly harm American security and increase uncertainty. The benefits are very helpful but not especially vital to American security. Using cost-benefit analysis, then, it's clearly a poor decision to go to war. We are risking our most important goals (securing the safety of Americans) to achieve secondary goals. It's especially poor because the evidentiary burden of going to war rests with war advocates, as going to war will result in increased uncertainty and risk (the devil we know is usually better than the devil we don't know). And there's the moral burden of ordering people to kill other people. You know, the culture of life we're trying to facilitate here. For both moral and practical reasons, we should resort to war only under the most compelling of cases. Here, in the biggest political decision in the last thirty years, the war supporters don't come close to meeting the burden. If the war weren't a fait accompli, the war's most vocal supporters would have a lot ot answer for.
To illustrate how conceptually unsound the idea of invading Iraq is from its inception, let me posit two scenarios, one abstract game theory, the other an analogy. (Btw, this post recycles and condenses my arguments from a lengthy discussion in the comments section here). The following is copied from this comment:
Let me throw out a game that illustrates the idiocy of this war. Say you have a list that (correctly) evaluates the respective danger posed to you by your enemies. The top enemies are ranked in the following order:
Enemy A - Most dangerous
Enemy B -
Enemy F - Least dangerous but still dangerous
Then you have another list evaluating the probable danger those enemies will pose in 5 years time, which shows the following:
Now, you have security resources totaling 100 units. How do your allocate those resources to maximize your defense/offense against these enemies? US's Iraq policy is akin to the following irrational allocation in this game:
80 Enemy F
5 Enemy A
5 Enemy B
5 Enemy C
5 Enemy D
0 Enemy E
The only way this allocation would make sense is if by defeating Enemy F, you can substantially weaken your other enemies. I don't think anyone can seriously make that case here. This is about as simple a way as I can put it to show how retarded the Iraq Invasion idea was to begin with.
In terms of strategic decision-making, that game illustrates the sheer idiocy of the Iraq invasion. For those not predisposed to attacking Iraq, it was clear that the country was not an urgent threat and not close to being a potentially urgent threat. And in 2003, we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan. We were still seeking allied support to root out al Qaida members in Europe and Southeast Asia. We had Iran and North Korea, both dangerous countries, seeking nuclear weapons. By allocating resources, I don't mean necessarily invading Iran or North Korea or China. With the $500 billion spent on Iraq, we could've dramatically beefed up security on vulnerable targets at home; we could've subsidized Russian scientists so that they won't sell nuclear secrets and materials to rogue countries. We could use soft power to pressure Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy. We could've better subsidize Pakistan's efforts to root out Wahhabism. We could more meaningfully fund opposition groups in Iran. That's not including the opportunity costs.
Or look at it another way:
You're the mayor and sheriff of a town with a crime problem. There's a murderous gang who killed a bunch of residents, but are now in hiding after losing a firefight with your police dept. But you know they're looking to kill again. A couple of crazy dudes in the town might be trying to get their hands on bombs to blow buildings up. Other, not-to-be-trusted types are forming private militias. Then, there are these four ex-cons who've fallen on hard-times: Sam, Kurt, Shane, and Sunny. Sam's the leader and an evil dude. Kurt, Shane and Sunny are just followers, but don't like each other. Now homeless, you suspect they're the culprits of a couple of muggings, using kitchen knives. Maybe if you don't do anything, they'll turn into a formidable crime syndicate one day, though they don't look anywhere close right now.
You've just received an additional $200,000.00 in discretionary funds in your budget for your 15 person police dept. Now you can choose one of the following options:
(1) add three police officers to beef up the police dept.
(2) add two police officers, allocate the rest to security equipment;
(3) add one police, give overtime to the rest, and order them to devote most manpower to preventing the crazies from getting bombs and hunting down the murderous gang;
(4) use the money as assets for undercover work to infiltrate the murderous gang and militia; or
(5) various combinations of the above; or
(6) throw evil Sam in jail on a public indecency charge, and then spend the rest of your discretionary funds on staff for a rehabilitation center where you try to turn Kurt, Shane, and Sunny into responsible citizens, with most of your police officers used primarily to oversee their reform and re-introduction into society.
If you chose (6), congratulations! You've just outed yourself as a war supporter completely incapable of weighing costs against benefits!
Adam and Og in the comments talk about the consequences of "doing nothing." But we had no-fly zones and mandatory weapons inspections. It seemed to work because the non-cherry-picked or non-pressured intelligence analysts at the time did not think Iraq was an imminent or even "clear and gathering threat". Doing nothing means keeping an emasculated, defanged dictator in place. True, that's not a preferred scenario. But it's not preferred that Kim Jong-il is in power, or that Iran elected a lunatic. Good leadership means taking effective and proportionate steps to neutralize potential dangers.
Instead, what we did was take the disproportionate step of going to war with a not-so-dangerous country, which resulted in fomenting hatred of us across the globe, a factory for newly minted and trained terrorists, thousands of dead soldiers, tens of thousands of maimed/injured soldiers, tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, $500 billion dollars ($1 trillion in total costs by some estimates), handcuffing and weakening US military capabilities, and leaving other rogue nations to do their thing.
In exchange, we got rid of Saddam and the Iraqi people -- those who weren't bombed to death, at least -- can now vote. (Saddam killed his own people. The War has resulted in 30,000 Iraqi deaths by reasonable estimations in two years. Was Saddam that much worse?)
Even without the recent spiral into potential civil war, the decision to go to war was categorically and completely wrong. Now, with everything playing out the way many said it would, you have absurd phenomenon of war-supporters continuing to belittle and mock those who were right. It's incredible and bewildering to me how this continues. Consider an analogy: prior to the Olympics, I boorishly exclaimed that Bode Miller would win 5 golds and and mocked anyone who says otherwise as an unpatriotic, anti-American wuss who knows nothing about skiiing. Today, I'm still calling Bode-skeptics anti-American ignorant wusses, except I talk about a conspiracy by the judges to disqualify Miller, or make other lame excuses for Bode's failures. I would be a fucking embarrassment. That's what these guys are like.
Sorry, own up, war supporters. You guys are JUST PLAIN WRONG.
Right on cue, today we have a post that perfectly exemplifies this self-aggrandizing wrongness phenomenon I'm talking about, from Marshall Wittman, the "Bull Moose." If that name sounds familiar, it's because Wittman, a centrist Democrat, is frequently quoted in news stories as an authority on politics. He's supposed to have some credibility. Yet this post is representative of the kind of hysterical, self-congratulatory drivel that war supporters pass off as argument these days. (By contrast, Adam and Og's arguments in the comments section were balanced and thoughtful.) Here's Wittman, quoted in italics:
Some opponents of the war are smugly chortling that "we told you so." Perhaps. But, these opponents do not necessarily occupy the strategic nor moral high ground.
This stuff is rich. Even though opponents of the war were right, they don't "occupy the strategic and moral high ground." We must cede the ground to whom? Wittman? Whose weekly ravings have all the earmarks of a man so fearful of looking "soft" that you suspect he's covering up for certain physical inadequacies? By this reasoning, Galileo's descendants should apologize to the Catholic church. Being right doesn't really matter, you see. Good judgment, strong analysis, good reasoning -- who cares. What does matter? You read guys like the Bull Moose enough, you realize what they care about is "appearing strong". Chest-thumping. A clown like Wittman takes Bill Clinton's maxim that in politics it's better to be wrong and strong than to be weak and right as a moral stance.
As for chortling, well, I for one, don't want to be right. But wanting and assessing are two different things. I want Kings & Queen to win the Academy Award for best picture. But I predict Brokeback Mountain. This is not a difficult distinction, and if we are increasingly vocal about the rightness of our judgment, it's because of boneheaded, speciously argued posts like this one.
"Do they really think that any post-9/11 President would allow Saddam to continue to taunt the West with the possibility of WMD?"
Never mind that this same 9/11 president allows Kim Jong-il to taunt the West with the probability of having nuclear WMD. Never mind that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 itself. ("Do they really think that any-post Pearl Harbor President would allow Mexico to continue to taunt the West with the possibility of military aircraft?") And never mind that the "WMD" that really matters -- nuclear weapons and large-scale mobile chemical weapons -- were not weapons that most informed people thought Saddam had. But what do facts have to do with anything? You see, 9/11 gives justification for everything, without consideration to effectiveness, proportionality, or costs. If you're attempting to think clearly and analytically, you're actually in a pre-9/11 mindset.
But you know what's weird? The Cold War was pre-9/11. During the Cold War, we faced the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. Funny, it seemed like it was even more dangerous back then, and yet none of those great Cold War presidents decided to embark on a reckless policy of regime change by any means necessary.
Do they believe that the realist notion of stability in the Middle East is a solution?
As opposed to Iran exerting influence on Iraq, the spread of radical Islam politically, and the election of Hamas? As opposed to Iraq becoming the recruiting center for Zarqawi and his minions, and where loose munitions and regions of chaos allow for hands-on training for would-be jihadists? As opposed to how things had been going in Iraq, which was in fact a toothless Saddam without WMDs, no Zarqawi presence, or brewing civil war? (Facts are important here.)
And would Iraq and the world really be better with a brutal tyrant still ruling over a country of rape rooms, mass graves and children's prisons?
Is the world better off with more jihadists trained in a terrorist playground with tons of unaccounted-for munitions? Is the world better off with 30,000 people dead? And the world isn't better off with Darfur's continuing genocide, AIDS in Africa, global warming accelerating, etc., that is continuing. For $500 billion dollars, you think we might have done something about those things. You see the dishonest rhetorical tricks (or maybe just plain moronic thinking) deployed by war supporters. It's as if there were no actual cost to the war. It was just about whether you were man enough to go to war or not.
Every decision involves costs, in real costs and opportunity costs. You stake most of the US military, most of the US attention, billions and billions of dollars on one area, you can't use those resources in other areas. If NIH devotes $200 million to researching chest-hair growth potions, that's $200 million that could have gone instead to cancer or Alzheimer's research under a more sensible policy. If the President focuses Americans on the problem of uncontrolled chest hair growth, there's the cost of attention diverted from cancer prevention and the like. It's funny how war supporters always ignoring the cost-side of the equation, as if we don't spend $200 million on chest hair research, that money would just vanish.
Do these war opponents really long for the "good old days" of Saddam's lovely Mesopotamian paradise that posed no earthly threat to the region?
I love how so many war supporters will predictably lapse into this kind of straw man at the end of their nonsensical rants. Did Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism czar who had advocated strong anti-Saddam measures for decades, really long for the "good old days" when he describes how the invasion of Iraq hurts our national interests and the war against al Qaida? How about Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor during the first Gulf War? Wes Clark, who spearheaded the Kosovo mission? (Michael Moore should've left that idiotic footage out of his film, but why attack Moore's dumbass point instead of addressing the meritorious ones, like the ones set forth by Clarke?)
Saddam is evil and Iraq was a hellpit. We can all agree on that. But there are plenty of evil people and hellpits in this world -- Iraq is far from the biggest hellpit. Does Wittman or any other war supporter propose spending $500 billion, immeasurable amount of American prestige and goodwill, 2,000+ soldiers lives and untold number of limbs and vital organs, an increase in hatred of America around the world for each hellpit and evil dictator removed? (To be charitable, I'm not even including the increase in jihadists, potential civil war, and other civilian deaths in this equation.) Do we have the responsibility of turning every hellpit into earthly paradise, no matter what the cost?
Give me a break. Folks this WRONG on something this important shouldn't have any credibility. Or they should be allowed to reclaim credibility only after publicly eating crow or issuing an apology. Instead of humility and embarrassment, pea-brained war supporters like Wittman continue to spit out discredited or specious nonsense in a desperate attempt to cast themselves as the force of Macho Manliness opposite those effete anti-war types who don't "get the post-9/11 world." Maybe this kind of blind chest-thumping is what "real men" do. But it takes a more virtuous person to accept responsibility for being so spectacularly WRONG.
In the meantime, the United States is weaker and less secure today as a result of invading Iraq.
 The $500 billion is guestimate taking into account this study (showing total economic costs of the war at $1 trillion or more); the 250+ billion already spent, and the current average of $ 6 billion a month for Iraq operations the next three years.