The $300 Billion Question

| Fri Apr. 22, 2005 3:10 PM EDT

From the Guardian, I see that the cost for the war in Iraq is now approaching some $300 billion. My first thought was, "Well, it's a heart-gulping amount of money, but hey, at least it's doing some good and making the lives of ordinary Iraqis much better." And then I realized, oh wait, that's right, we're talking about a country that's suffering from a lack of clean drinking water, primarily because the military needs more funds for security, all due to some botch-ups and lack of planning in the early stages of the occupation that allowed the insurgency to spiral out of control. Great.

Bringing up the price tag also bring up the question of the opportunity costs of the war in Iraq, and I think the latter is a good question to ask. Let's go through some of the, um, more valid rationales for the invasion. First, you could argue, even in retrospect, that in the long term the sanctions regime against Iraq was untenable and eventually Saddam Hussein would have re-armed, possibly fired up his pre-nascent WMD program again, and then possibly—possibly—colluded with nasty terrorists and threatened the United States. I think that scenario's mostly far-fetched, but not impossible, and certainly an argument worth considering. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that instead of invading Iraq we could have spent a fraction of that $300 billion to secure loose nuclear material around the world and strengthen controls on nuclear proliferation, two things that the White House has done exceedingly poorly over the last four years, and two things that would make America far, far safer than a disarmed Iraq ever would.

Okay. Second, you could say that the war in Iraq has helped spread democracy throughout the Middle East, and that's a good thing. Again, somewhat shaky argument—it's not entirely clear that the January 30 elections in Iraq caused Palestinian reforms (which were largely due to the death of Arafat), or the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (which was due mostly to endogenous factors), or piecemeal reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it's not clear that the proto-democracy movement now sweeping the Middle East will even go anywhere, or come to full fruition. Backsliding by Arab despots is a very real possibility. Nevertheless, assume the war in Iraq has led to some good democracy-related things. Well, even then, it's hard to imagine that we couldn't have spent that $300 billion pushing elsewhere for reform around the Middle East, in ways that could've likely had an even greater impact. Egypt, after all, is the largest and perhaps most influential Arab state, and yes, it's entirely realistic to think that with far less than $300 billion, a bit of time, and intense pressure, the Bush administration could've set that country on the path to democracy, a shift that would've caused far, far bigger ripples throughout the region.

Third, you could say that so long as Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraq was a threat to stable oil prices throughout the region. I don't think that was the only rationale for invading, but realistically, it was probably a consideration—Dick Cheney tipped his hand on this way back in late 2002, when he warned against Saddam Hussein being "seated atop ten percent of the world's oil reserves." (He stopped using this line after an ensuing outcry.) Of course, the insurgency in Iraq has caused an even greater uncertainty in oil prices than Saddam Hussein had been doing, so this reason for invading seems sort of futile in retrospect. But again, assume it was a decent rationale for war. Well, even then, instead of invading we could've spent part of that $300 billion on pursuing real energy independence, something that would've cushioned the U.S. economy from fluctuations in oil prices far more efficiently than a stable, democratic Iraq could've done.

Oh yes, and then fourth, there's the humanitarian argument. Even if we could've achieved security, democratization, and energy stability by not invading Iraq, surely no compassionate liberal would prefer to leave Saddam Hussein in power, right? Well, all else equal, of course I'd prefer to see Saddam ousted. But all else isn't equal. Again, for a fraction of that $300 billion we could've done far more humanitarian good elsewhere. The U.S. could have stopped the ongoing genocide in Darfur, for instance, something that apparently we "can't" do now, because our troops are all tied up in Iraq. Or hell, we could've cranked up our relatively meager foreign aid and set ourselves to alleviating world poverty. If you're just concerned about improving people's lives for the sake of improving people's lives, there's so much else the U.S. could've done that would have, in a strict utilitarian calculus, been a better course of action.

This is all somewhat retrospective, of course, and there's a whiff of Monday morning quarterbacking about it. But not entirely, and it would be foolish to discount the opportunity costs here. Obviously, if Iraq does pull through and, in ten years, becomes a relatively stable and free democracy—and I think there's a chance of this happening—history will of course "vindicate" George W. Bush and laud him for liberating Iraq. The history books won't touch on what else might've been accomplished for so much blood and treasure, but that obviously ought to be a crucial consideration when assessing any foreign policy venture. And meanwhile, there are all the clear net negatives that have come with war: the countless Iraqi civilians who have either died or suffered thus far, the creation of a whole new generation of Islamic jihadists, the blow to America's international prestige and moral standing. Count me as one who fervently hopes Iraq improves, avoids civil war, and becomes a full-fledged democracy, but none of those things will "vindicate" the invasion when all is said and done.