Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Iraq War: a cost-benefit analysis



Mark Steyn strikes me as the kind of guy who would trick his buddy into picking a fight, then laugh as his buddy got punched in the groin. In fact, that's pretty much typical of the people whom we have come to call "neocons" - bombastically blathering about empire and glory and destiny and national will from the safety of their manicured subdivisions while someone else's kid watches his intestines fall out of his abdominal cavity in some God-forsaken hellhole halfway around the globe. These are the sort of grinning fascists in whose minds democracy equals national weakness, and hence is a great thing to foist on our enemies while quietly suppressing at home.

OK, but that said, let's be economists about this. Let's do as Steyn purports (and in my opinion utterly fails) to do, and do a cold, calculating, rational cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq War.

This is very difficult to do, for two reasons. First, a counterfactual history is nearly impossible to construct; who knows how many of the things that have happened in connection with the Iraq War would have happened anyway, and who knows what other things would have happened? Second, the long-term effects of the war are not known; as with the French Revolution, it's "too early to tell" and always will be. But in these cases, you work with what you've got. So...

Costs of the Iraq War

* 150,000 - 200,000 Iraqis killed. This is a low estimate, but like many historians I tend to believe low estimates when it comes to war casualties, since there are a lot of refugees in wars, since government systems for counting people break down, and since a lot of people would have died anyway, especially given the crushing sanctions regime in place before the war. So let's make it 150-200k with an asterisk; it might have been three times that. (What's a factor of three between friends?)

* 4,400 Americans killed. Why list Americans separately from Iraqis (aren't they all humans)? Answer: Because many people care about this difference.

* 32,000 Americans wounded.  This could range from a cut on the arm to four lost limbs. Due to improved battlefield medicine, there are more of the very severe "four lost limb" type injuries now than in past wars.

* Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis wounded. Probably. I'm not sure anyone has been able to count this.

* About 6 trillion dollars of U.S. money spent (about 40% of one year of U.S. GDP)

* A moderate, permanent loss of American prestige in Europe (possibly inevitable due to the end of the Cold War).

* A large temporary loss of American prestige in Europe, reversed when the Obama administration came into power.

* A moderate, permanent loss of American prestige in the Islamic world, from an already low level.

* A solidifying of the Russia-China alliance, which looks very capable of containing American power globally. 

* A temporary distraction from the hunt for al Qaeda, reversed when Obama came into power and successfully killed al Qaeda's leadership.

* A long-lasting degradation of the quality of U.S. public discourse and the quality of U.S. politics. This item bears some explanation. In order to sell the war to the American people, large amounts of lying and distortion were necessary. Because of the stickiness of partisan opinions and worldviews (no one ever wants to admit their side was wrong), this meant that Republicans and conservatives had to retain that Bush-distorted worldview long after the war. That might be the reason why Tea Party types are up in arms about Benghazi, while the rest of America doesn't even know what Benghazi is. 

* An increase in geopolitical strength for Iran, commonly believed to be a strategic enemy of the U.S.

* An acceleration of Iran's nuclear program, seen by Iran as the only deterrent that can prevent a U.S. invasion.

* A high continuing rate of violence in Iraq.


Benefits of the Iraq War

* The removal of the Hussein family from power in Iraq, and their replacement with marginally less effective, malign, and insane dictators.

* The elimination of the tiny, tiny risk that Saddam would one day develop WMDs.

* An improved Iraqi economy. Iraq's GDP, which had been crushed by sanctions, after the war recovered strongly, growing robustly in every year since 2006. Part of this, of course, is a windfall due to high oil prices; but if the Iraq War hadn't happened, sanctions might have prevented Iraq from selling a lot of its oil.

* An Iraq that is slightly more free than under Saddam. Iraq is still rated "Not Free" by Freedom House, though its ratings have improved ever so slightly since the war. Freedom House is a U.S. government-sponsored NGO, so it's not a good idea to trust their data implicitly, but this seems to agree with many other reports. 

* A revitalized American liberal movement. The blogosphere as we know it really took off in response to the Iraq War, becoming the liberal answer to conservative talk radio. Truly liberal media outlets like MSNBC also emerged as answers to Fox News. And the general galvanization of America's dormant left might have enabled the election of Obama and sped the conservative retreat that we now see happening.

* The breaking of 9/11 fever. This is also hard to pin down, and may not even be real, but after 9/11 I felt a real sort of general madness in America. Terrorists could hit us any time, anywhere. The government was eliminating civil liberties right and left and people seemed to be fine with that. America seemed headed for a dark period of fear-based fascism, or Islamophobic ethnic conflict, or...well, something. Then the Iraq War came and brought more than half of America back to its senses. We remembered that the biggest threat to us is our own stupidity. We realized that the panic over a global jihadist wave was 99.9% paranoia. While the Republicans stayed nuts, the Democrats came back to the reality-based community.


Of course, these last two are a little silly to include as "benefits" of the war, since they weren't intended by the war's promoters (though neither were most of the costs). It's a bit like saying that the creation of the UN and the democratization of Europe were positive effects of Hitler's invasions, or that the worldwide condemnation of genocide was a positive result of the Holocaust. You should never start a war in the hope that you'll be defeated and that your defeat will invigorate the forces of good.

Anyway, so what do we conclude from this cost-benefit analysis? It's very hard to put dollar figures on these things, but I didn't try, because what this exercise should clearly demonstrate is that very, very little apparent benefit resulted from the decision to invade Iraq, while there were a whole lot of very apparent costs. This fact should dominate all discussions of the war. Who cares if we "won"? Who cares if the Surge (i.e. paying Sunni militias to stop bombing us, while pretending to make a show of force) worked? Who cares if Saddam was a brutal, awful guy? 

What should matter is that we paid a lot, and we got not much. There are a lot of two-bit dictatorships we could randomly invade and depose in bloody wars. There would be benefits to getting rid of Kim Jong-Un, or Robert Mugabe, or the mullahs of Iran. They just wouldn't be worth the price tag.

78 comments:

  1. Hurt Locker should also go into benefits.

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  2. Re-election of Bush, with the concomitant postponement for two, or three, or seven or eight years, of slightly higher top marginal rates of income tax, and a reprieve, for two, or three, or seven or eight years, from the scourge of gay marriage, in some states. A couple of Supreme Court nominations, too.

    That is surely worth the cost.

    Because even going in, unless you were an actual stockholder in Exxon/Mobil, or Halliburton, Iraq wasn't a war, it was the world's most expensive campaign commercials.

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  3. When a democratic state kills, who has the moral agency of that murder? Surely not the executioner, or the soldier. If someone must bear it (and someone must) it must be the citizens. To me that is the greatest cost by far and I deeply resent it.

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    1. "When a democratic state kills, who has the moral agency of that murder? Surely not the executioner, or the soldier. If someone must bear it (and someone must) it must be the citizens. To me that is the greatest cost by far and I deeply resent it. "

      No, I opposed it. My opposition counted for jack f-ing squat.

      The people who supported the war bear the full moral cost.

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    2. Anonymous7:19 AM

      Try that line next time you are taken hostage whilst on holiday in a foreign country by some wannabe jihadi...

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  4. You forgot to mention the creation of al-Qaeda Iraq. The Sunni minority under Hussein were doing great and had no interest in al-Qaeda. Since the Shia majority are now running the show, 35% of the Iraqi population is now very supportive of al-Qaeda.

    And you also didn't mention that Iraq is now a pro-Iranian Sharia law country that has explicitly refused the US use of Iraqi land and airspace should the US go to war with Iran.

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    1. Refusing us the use of Iraqi land and airspace would be a good thing, because it makes it (a little) less likely that we'll go to war against Iran.

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  5. Anonymous6:51 PM

    The biggest potential cost: We eliminated Iran's natural enemy. This will likely prove to be the biggest strategic blunder in modern times. The hard-dollar cost of this 'oops' is incalculable. Pick a number and then add a lot of zeros.

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    1. Nah. Iran is a minor problem, and tends to be a defensive power.

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  6. Under benefits you forgot the increase in GDP from the windfall to the retailers of Canadian flag patches for young Americans to sow onto there backpacks when they go on a trip abroad to, well, just about anywhere exept Australia, Britain or Canada.

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  7. Noah: "Mark Steyn strikes me as the kind of guy who would trick his buddy into picking a fight, then laugh as his buddy got punched in the groin. In fact, that's pretty much typical of the people whom we have come to call "neocons" - bombastically blathering about empire and glory and destiny and national will from the safety of their manicured subdivisions while someone else's kid watches his intestines fall out of his abdominal cavity in some God-forsaken hellhole halfway around the globe. These are the sort of grinning fascists in whose minds democracy equals national weakness, and hence is a great thing to foist on our enemies while quietly suppressing at home."

    What's frightening is that this is a *restrained* description of neocons - any of them. Frankly, we should have mounted them on stakes, Vlad-style. They'll be back, and cause more grief.

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  8. Anonymous9:26 PM

    One of the benefits of kicking the daylights out of Iraq is the continued acceptance of US dollars as payment for oil.
    Consider that the US was OK with Saddam until he announced that he would accept a basket of currencies in exchange for oil. The bombing started soon thereafter.
    Note that the same thing played out in Libya. We were OK with Khadafi until he announced he would take a basket of currencies for his oil. Again, the bombing started within weeks.
    We stayed out of Egypt. We're staying out of Syria. They accept US dollars.
    When your currency is backed only by more printed currency, it is very important that people accept it and nothing else. Since the US government can print money, the only reason to collect taxes (payable only in dollars) is to ensure that people value having dollars.

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    1. Anonymous12:54 AM

      If US dollars were really such an undesirable commodity that it might become difficult to trade them for oil it seems unlikely that US government bonds would at the same time be so expensive that people will pay, in real terms, simply for the privilege of holding on to them.

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  9. The China-Russia alliance was already quite solid before Bush was even elected. Before Putin was even leader of Russia, really. And the global politics of the Iraq controversy were little different in the 90s, when Clinton -- to his discredit -- kept the conflict ongoing, and fed us all the story that Iraq still had WMDs.

    Another "benefit", arguably, would be more widespread understanding among Americans of the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. Also, the fact that there are people called Kurds who have always gotten a raw deal. The geopolitics of the Middle East generally, and the lingering bad effects of the colonial borders.

    Whether it's a cost or a benefit depends on one's perspective, but the political survival of Hugo Chavez, and the election of other Latin American leftists, would probably not have happened without Bush's rampant unpopularity.

    I would largely blame the Iraq War for the Tea Party. Libertarians looked like the only sane right-wingers for a good half decade there. So when Bush flopped, all righties pretended to be in the libertarian fold.

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    1. Chris4:34 AM

      To be fair the WMD issue is slightly more complex than the black and white way it is usually portrayed.

      Saddam wanted the world to think he had them, as he wanted to be a local power. The west had sold him (chemical) WMDs, and it was known he'd used at least some, but people didn't think he'd used them all. He didn't have a long range delivery system, so some of the hype was overblown, and that was pretty well known.

      The media were hammering politicians daily asking "what are you going to do about Iraq not letting in weapon inspectors" for weeks before the war. Unfortunately politicians don't like feeling powerless to fix problems, and would rather do something than feel powerless. War is something.

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  10. starbird11:06 PM

    The use of the term "grinning fascists" does not enhance your article.

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    1. I think it does!

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    2. Anonymous9:24 AM

      Bill Clinton approved the war***, for God's sake. Not only him: The Economist, Ezra Klein (maybe even Noah Smith back in those days?).

      Spare us all this "good liberal guys vs. fascist republican pigs" routine, please. And, Noah, your derision for the people denouncing the "Bengazhi" affair betrays the kind of poisonous, stupid, partisanship that is the shame of USA politcs. So it is all ok if "our guy Obama" strike some bombs on an African hellhole (without Congress authorization), helping Gaddafi's replacement with marginally less effective, malign, and insane warlords? Oh, puuuhleeeeaaase...

      *** http://www.wnd.com/2003/02/17376/
      Clinton: “Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there is one big difference: He has used them. Not once, but repeatedly. Unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war. Not only against soldiers, but against civilians, firing Scud missiles at the citizens of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. And not only against a foreign enemy, but even against his own people, gassing Kurdish civilians in Northern Iraq. … I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.”

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    3. Anonymous1:22 PM

      Agree entirely, Noah; the "grinning fascists" paragraph is perhaps the tautest part of this post. And I agree with nearly all of the argument, save the following: 650,000 Iraqi civilians. The second Lancet study was in mid-2006, before the surge, so it's if anything an undercount. And yes, it's hard to measure things precisely (and you explain why ably), but the 95% confidence interval in 2006 was 400,000 to 950,000.

      Six hundred thousand dead. And there are those who will cheer it because three of them were named Uday, Qusay, and Saddam....

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    4. Anonymous1:36 PM

      Ok, but it trully was a bi-partisan fuck up. Liberal revisionism cannot erase things like NYT's stupid apology: "we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims (related to Iraqi weapons programs) as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge."

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    5. 'Grinning fascists' is excellent. Keep it up, please.

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  11. Anonymous1:52 AM

    "neocons" - bombastically blathering about empire and glory and destiny and national will from the safety of their manicured subdivisions while someone else's kid watches his intestines fall out of his abdominal cavity in some God-forsaken hellhole halfway around the globe.

    How much more cost can one add? This was also true during Vietnam war. And, it is grinning neocons, who are the fascists from time gone by.

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  12. Noah,

    I love your blog mainly because you give us a reasonable liberal's point of view and analyse things very well for economics enthusiasts who are not yet Economists. But here you have missed out completely on the depth of the issue.

    Think in this direction.

    1. What price would you pay if you could, to avoid a 9/11 kind of scenario or to reduce even slightly the risk of nuclear attack on US soil or even elsewhere on US-connected assets. Reduction in risk up to even 1% of a nuclear showdown. Not worth anything?

    2. The Cost. Who do you think actually received the $ that the US government spend. I doubt even 10% of it went to non-Americans - people and institutions.

    3. What about the intangibles and that which cannot be publicly disclosed. Hint. Oil. Spy infrastructure and building a base near the heart of the Middle East. Full on ground control of the middle-east.

    It is not fair to discuss "cost-benefit" if you are not willing to actually dig deeper and discuss the real costs and real benefits to Americans. It is possible still that the costs slightly outweight the benefits. But you will see if you did a thorough analysis, not going for war over going for war is not that easy a decision.

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    1. BrettM8:51 AM

      1. And not be churlish about it but: hahahahaaha you think that invading Iraq lowered the risk of an attack on America... hahahahahaa

      2. Interesting point about the stimulus effect of war spending. Not that it would have happened but spending that $6trillion on infrastructure would have done a lot more good that spending it on war. There is also an oportunity cost... the war was debt financed and that seems to matter to the crazy folk over at the GOP.

      Finally...
      3. The entire thing made it far more difficult to be American in the middle east. It makes doing business let alone spying much more difficult. The US has a huge presence in teh region which was if anything depleted by the war effort rather than reinforced.

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    2. Not to be churlish. But are you the Director of the CIA? Dude No one has full information about what exactly goes on behind the scenes. Major intelligent victories are NEVER disclosed. That is the primary reason for their continued success. The MOST important thing is with everyone and their mother from the Arab world out to hurt US, there has been no attack on US soil. You have to give credit where it is due. That is why the question I asked was What price would you pay for 9/11 to never happen? It is a rhetorical question for a reason.

      My argument has not been about money definitely well spent. But there are real cost - benefits which everyone is not digging deeper into. The fundamental point is that the highest value benefits might never be discussed in public.

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    3. Anonymous1:47 PM

      @Kiran Pal
      "The MOST important thing is with everyone and their mother from the Arab world out to hurt US, there has been no attack on US soil."

      Your reply sounds utterly disgusting at best. I will vomit out. Ohh...some body help this person.

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    4. HaHa. That was the wrong usage of language. But I think you are deluding yourself if you think there is not a strong sentiment out there to hurt the US somehow. The 9/11 did not just randomly happen. What I meant was that there is a strong anti US sentiment out there and the US needs to be on guard. I hope you don't disagree with this and just the usage which surely I agree was overdone.

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    5. 9/11 did not just randomly happen. What I meant was that there is a strong anti US sentiment out there and the US needs to be on guard

      And did the invasion of Iraq increase or decrease anti-US sentiment? Was it a prudent use of force, or a wildly reckless lashing out at parties with ZERO connection to 9/11?

      You say there hasn't been an attack on US soil. That is nonsense. What about the Arab-American army (officer?) who went berserk and killed numerous army colleagues? Think our idiotic invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with that?

      Don't you think we have an obligation to use deadly force with intelligence and restraint?

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    6. Kirin Pai, it's true that we don't have the full information. But something that we do know about is how truthful the Bush administration was with us, and that's not at all.

      Another thing we do know is who much thought and effort the Bush administration put into this war (allegedly necessary), aside from marketing the war, and that was no effort at all.

      Another thing we do know is how much effort the Bush administration put into securing munitions in Iraq, even months after the war (some of which, by administration claims, should have been nerve gas or mustard gas shells), and that was no effort at all.


      Given this, where is any evidence in favor of your argument?

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    7. Guys, I am not a defender of the position that war indeed was the right decision there. But at the time of post 9/11 hysteria both the dems and reps were nearly all for it. Of course there were some who opposed it but they were a minority. It was indeed the majority opinion of everyone including the average American.

      So coming back to the cost-benefit analysis, there must have been some level of intel about Iraq at that point of time. The nature of intel is that sometimes its right, sometimes partially right and sometimes wrong. And all intel successes are more or less never disclosed. Taking all this into account and considering a broader way to look at cost-benefit analysis will only lead you to better understand what all those people for the war might have been thinking at the time.

      I am only saying you can't do a simplistic analysis and blame 90% of the public opinion at that time.

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    8. there must have been some level of intel about Iraq at that point of time

      Must have been? I don't know what basis you have for making assumptions like this, especially given what we know about the shallowness of the Bush administration planning and analysis.

      You seem to be engaging in pure speculation without regard to the monumental human, financial and reputational costs incurred.

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    9. @Matt, You can't have it both ways. Either you "want" to assume everyone was a just a fool and wanted a war for their own sake and/or for a lot of action/fun or you assume there was a reasonable probability of future problems if there were no war. Whatever biases we have we prefer to think in that direction. So at least acknowledge this. And you continue to think only Bush and co wanted it. The point is the majority opinion and majority of democrats and nearly all republicans were for it. I am just saying it is not due to stupidity or all about some personal gains.

      In the end what happened, the war achieved more or less what it intended to achieve though at a significant cost. There was no large terror attack on the US. Iraq risk was neutralized. Both what we know and what we may never know. I generally don't like to take those $ numbers at face value as some of that expenditure would have happened anyway. That is the nature of the US military complex. You want to keep alive a lot of companies and jobs which are military expenditure and in wars are the best excuse to continue them. There is a cost for the major shutdown of some of these innovation factories and jobs.

      Anyways to repeat, all I am saying is that the benefits are higher than you think and the costs lesser than is currently perceived. If you do a more in depth calculation. That does not mean then the war was the right decision. It just makes us understand post ante analysis is different from analysis before making a tough decision.

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  13. Anonymous8:40 AM

    So democrats in Congress had no fault in this débâcle, neither the majority of Americans who approved the war? OK, then: Republicans are evil and warmongering; liberals are stupid, whiny, and just "can't handle the truth"/bear the weigth of their own passivity/admit their own sins.

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    1. Of course there were Democrats who went along, for various ignoble reasons. But they certainly didn't initiate the debacle. And the lemmings in the media did their part to marginalize and ostracize the many voices of dissent. And those dissenting voices were disproportionately liberal and Democratic.

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  14. Phil Koop9:23 AM

    You have overlooked the biggest cost of all those that were evident at the time the decision was made: the invasion of Iraq impaired America's ability to fight Islamic terrorism, which was supposed to be the ultimate justification for all these adventures.

    At the time of the Iraq invasion, the shooting was not yet over in Afghanistan. The basic problem was that there was not sufficient political will to support a draft, which would have been the only way to raise an army large enough to pacify these countries, rather than merely defeating all military opponents. Invading a new country with a similar population simultaneously gave a vast new shelter to Al Qaeda even as it diminished the specific force America was able to apply by 50%.

    From a narrow, amoral, self-interested view it was a foolish and counterproductive decision.

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  15. Dude, I read this blog because you frequently have good stuff to say. This is nothing more than overstated left-wing vitriol. Clearly you (as well as I) disagree with many policies and ideas of the Right, but your marginalization of many sensible republicans is dishonest and uneducated. Truly, I'm disappointed.

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  16. None of the Cold War era dictatorships in Peripheral Europe were invaded and they are now friendly to the US democracies. (With the only exception of Yugoslavia which was in fact bombed - unfortunately necessary to prevent mass-scale genocide)

    Most of the countries in Latin America faced some unilateral intervention from the US and Latin America is now mostly left-wing nationalist, always fear coups, produce drugs, have slow growth and even democracies aren't very friendly to the US. The only exceptions are countries that partner (and are pressured by) with the US to destroy narcotics production and trade.

    This seems to be caused by large group of people that have nationalist/anticolonial feelings that have no incentives to be dominant in Peripheral Europe.

    It seems to me that regime change is something that should be used only when it appears that not invading will be in every case better than avoiding the regime (preventing large scale murder).

    The story of intervention will remain a divisive national trauma even then.

    Now back to Iraq - I'm fairly certain that the current population will blame the civil war it had on the intervention, just like SA has blamed most of its problems on the US.

    In 2003 the Saddam regime hadn't invaded anyone or done genocide in over 10 years - the reasons to invade were long gone, and it had no nuclear reactors (thanks to Iran and Israel that bombed them in the early 80s). Even the Kurds were semi-independent.

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  17. Anonymous12:04 PM

    What strikes me is how so many liberals are coming out of the woodwork now and doing an ex post analysis and saying "I told you so." The fact is, nearly every single senator voted to go to war based on the evidence at the time.

    Monday morning quarterbacking is easy but pointless. Why not come out and say "Darn, I was wrong." Or, "Looking back, had I known then what I did now, I wish we had not gone to war." That's a perfectly fine statement. But to pretentiously claim that so many people knew all along it would not work is, quite frankly, a lie only an MSNBC commentator or viewer would make.

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    1. Anonymous3:49 PM

      "The fact is, nearly every single senator voted to go to war based on the evidence at the time."

      Based on political expediency. If Hillary had opposed the war she'd be President now.

      Disclaimer: I had no keen insights at the time.

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    2. Anonymous6:47 AM

      In February 2003 just over a quarter of Americans still opposed the war. That's a lot of people who can legitimately say "told you so". Analysis of why they turned out to be right and why the war was wrong is never pointless. It can potentially stop another stupid war.

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    3. And that quarter was after 9/11, and after the government and most of the media spent a year telling us straight up lies.


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    4. "What strikes me is how so many liberals are coming out of the woodwork now and doing an ex post analysis and saying "I told you so." The fact is, nearly every single senator voted to go to war based on the evidence at the time."

      We were saying it back in the day, as well - although that's probably not in your history.

      "Monday morning quarterbacking is easy but pointless. Why not come out and say "Darn, I was wrong." Or, "Looking back, had I known then what I did now, I wish we had not gone to war." That's a perfectly fine statement. But to pretentiously claim that so many people knew all along it would not work is, quite frankly, a lie only an MSNBC commentator or viewer would make. "


      'Monday morning quarterbacking' is just the neocon line for 'forget that we lied'.

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  18. Anonymous12:08 PM

    I have to agree with most guys here, you have a gift of explaining things and you're probably an excellent professor but you don't know your history.
    I frequently read your blog because I mostly agree with you on economics (you complement Krugman's blog very well) but this cultural leftism/frankfurtism that is so prevalent here in Europe is clearly partisanship.
    History will be the last to judge but Mark Steyn is right, a merchant republic like United States is a bad choice for a global hegemon. Here in Vienna you can see that a rich nation that cannot bother keeping up an army is retreating not only from imperialism and conquest but also from greatness.
    Here is another Steyn quote where he gets things right:

    "The “deal of ruin”—incremental decay—is seductive. In some ways, the most pleasant place to live is a colossus in gradual decline. Great powers aren’t Sudan or the Congo, where you’re sliding from the Dump category to the Even Crummier Dump category. Genteel decline from the heights can be eminently civilized, especially to those of a leftish bent. Francophile Americans passing through bucolic Provençal villages with their charmingly state-regulated charcuteries and gnarled old peasants wholly subsidized by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy can be forgiven for wondering if global hegemony is all it’s cracked up to be. Okay, the empire busted up, but the capital still has magnificent architecture, handsome palaces, treasure houses of great art, a world-class orchestra, fabulous restaurants, stylish women.... You still have the opera house, but it’s easier to get a parking space. Who wouldn’t enjoy such “decline”? To be sure, everything new—or, anyway, everything new that works—is invented and made elsewhere. But still: you benefit from all the cultural inheritance of greatness without being troubled by any of its tedious responsibilities. Much of Europe feels like that: a sidewalk café, chestnuts in blossom, have another coffee and a pastry, and watch the world go by. Life is good, work is undemanding, vacation’s coming up, war has been abolished. Somewhere beyond the horizon is a seething Muslim ghetto of 50 percent youth unemployment, whence the men swagger forth at sundown to torch the Renaults and Citroëns of the infidels.31 But not in your arrondissement. And not even on the Friday afternoon drive to your country place."

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    1. Anonymous1:22 PM

      "a merchant republic like United States is a bad choice for a global hegemon"

      This is clearly wrong in face of the REAL options, present and past. USA ain't perfect, but what other hegemons-wanna-be would you have/had? Imperialist Britain, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Google-censoring China?

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    2. Imperialist Britain.

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    3. Anonymous3:57 PM

      "Gets things right?!"

      This is drivel. There is no analytic content whatever, just macho posturing.

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    4. Here in Vienna you can see that a rich nation that cannot bother keeping up an army is retreating not only from imperialism and conquest but also from greatness.

      So you're from the Austrian school of imperialism, eh? ;-)

      And: Austria is retreating from greatness? Aren't you just a little late with that observation? Wasn't the Seven Years' War 250 years ago?

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    5. Mark Steyn. I didn't knew him( and I thanked God for it, after I knew him). So I googled him out. And what I founds is that this person is suffering from sever mental sickness. He is one of the many many person, having a turtle-size-mind, who will make case on the basis of race and religion. Sick. And the fact he get even an audience shows this sickness at large.

      Lolz, As I said sun is burning and earth will vanish too and with it humanity as well, so where will his preferred race reside.
      http://raskalnikoff.blogspot.in/2013/02/burning-sun.html

      Well, he is a paranoid who has got an stage.

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    6. Anonymous5:01 AM

      I read that as the Ottoman school of imperialism. The Turkish empire's decline is often considered to have started with the failed 2nd siege of Vienna. However, to say the decline came about from an unwillingness to maintain an army is just wrong. The Turkish empire remained a formidable power for a long time after that.

      If it's really about Austria's willingness to maintain an army, then I just wonder how the heck will comes into the equation when the constituent parts of the empire declare independence after the Empire has suffered a crushing defeat in 1918. The imperialists could have tried to occupy the new countries but the victors of the Great War wouldn't have allowed that, since a weak Austria was in their interests. Remaining a major military power became impossible.

      Delete
  19. Wonks Anonymous3:21 PM

    I don't like the U.N, so I experience no dissonance regarding my belief that Hitler was bad. What a tosser, that one.

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  20. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Damn it, Noah, would you please turn off the comment validation? It's annoying, and if Mark Thoma doesn't need it you don't either.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK we'll give it a try, but if spambots swarm, it's going back on...

      Delete
    2. if Mark Thoma doesn't need

      Mark Thoma's comment threads are a festering swamp. Mark should impose a few rules, such as: posters are expected to use complete sentences and no more than three comments per poster per article.

      Delete
  21. Especially because of what tends to come after, which is never the picture of functioning democracy that the warmongers always promise.

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  22. The first paragraph was the best thing I've ever read here (and I've been reading since 2006).

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    1. Not sure if that's a compliment, or damning me with faint praise... ;-)

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  23. An acceleration of Iran's nuclear program, seen by Iran as the only deterrent that can prevent a U.S. invasion.

    Not sure there is actually any evidence that Iran's nuclear deterrent program has been accelerated. In the 1990s there were plenty of professional and lay analyses that suggested a 3-5 year Iranian nuclear timeframe. And here we are in 2013 still with no actual hard evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

    What should matter is that we paid a lot, and we got not much. There are a lot of two-bit dictatorships we could randomly invade and depose in bloody wars. There would be benefits to getting rid of Kim Jong-Un, or Robert Mugabe, or the mullahs of Iran. They just wouldn't be worth the price tag.

    While I completely agree that the costs far outweigh the benefits, I am not sure we can be sure that there will be any real benefits to taking out these kinds of leaders. Very often the people who replace them are worse. And looking at your list of "benefits" for the Iraq war, the vast majority of these are totally accidental. Is the status quo in Iraq really better than before 2003? For some, yes. For some (especially those who died or were wounded), no.

    I actually think the USA dodged a lot of bullets with the Iraq war; it didn't lead to some broader regional conflict, or nuclear escalation. It was a bad, costly war, but it could have been much worse. These kinds of interventions however "humanitarian" we may portray them to be have massively fat negative tails.

    I think the best use of US force is in peacekeeping. But peacekeeping has to mean peacekeeping. The US does have overwhelming force against the vast majority of countries and dictators. If a civil war breaks out like Rwanda or Libya or Syria, maybe there is some role for peacekeeping. But it is so very easy for "peacekeeping" to turn into "supporting the rebels to defeat the dictator". That's what happened in Libya, and that brought a load of groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda to power. I wish Hillary Clinton had lived up to her liberal credentials and made the US role pertaining to the conflicts relating to the Arab spring into a purely peacekeeping and intermediation role rather than a "defeat Qadaffi" and "defeat Assad" role.

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    1. It might be better for Nato if armies like Canada, Denmark, Norway etc were the peacekeeping arm (trained and equipped for it) and the American military remained the war fighting arm of Nato.

      Delete
    2. "These kinds of interventions however "humanitarian" we may portray them to be have massively fat negative tails."

      Speaking of massively fat tails, I play guitar at monthly jazz gig here in Tokyo where the band backs 25 or so amateur singers who each do two songs; mostly "standards", the stuff that the GIs brought over to Japan after the war. So during one of the breaks I'm chatting with one of the singers who mentions she lives in downtown Tokyo. "Where?" I ask innocently. "Nezu; we used to live in Akasaka but got burned out by the incendiary raids during the war." Oops. Sorry.

      Those tails are not only massively fat, they're also infinitely long.

      Delete
    3. Absalom: "It might be better for Nato if armies like Canada, Denmark, Norway etc were the peacekeeping arm (trained and equipped for it) and the American military remained the war fighting arm of Nato. "

      And why should they stick their d*cks into grinder?

      Delete
  24. Bill Ellis11:43 PM

    Just to add my two cents....The dems in congress do deserve part of the blame... But in no way was Attacking Iraq a bi-partisan adventure.

    It was the Bush administration that used the national trauma of 9/11 to lie Americans into a gusto for war and that cowed Dem representatives. (Shame on them. )

    Does anyone really think we would have gone to war if the supreme court had not prevented Gore from being elected instead of Bush ?

    This debacle Iraq... is on the repubs... The Bush administration bears the bulk of the responsibility.

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    1. Anonymous12:58 PM

      Sorry, Bill, the responsibility lies on every member of Congress who voted for war. How were the Dems cowed? Did Bush threaten to shoot them? Get off it!

      Delete
    2. "Sorry, Bill, the responsibility lies on every member of Congress who voted for war. How were the Dems cowed? Did Bush threaten to shoot them? Get off it! "

      9/11

      Remember that?

      Delete
  25. Anonymous8:22 AM

    Neocons are a different breed and closely approach or exceed fascists in many of their acts. They come in all flavors - from ultra liberal to ultra conservative. By labeling a few liberals - including Noah - like many here have done, does not change the thesis of the author. Neocons, the post fascists, have mastered the political machinery of the USA and captured the mighty military power to do utterly unthinkable. If any of you have any doubt, Obama is in the line of succession of the Neocons who have been prosecuting fundamentally corrupt acts for whatever the ultimate objective, if any. There are a few learned people have observed that some simply enjoy war, violence and sufferings of others.

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  26. Anonymous12:54 PM

    This is just rubbish, Noah. You can't conduct this cost benefit unless you specify a reasonable counterfactual. A reasonable one is the status quo of UN sponsored sanctions and limited military strikes. But the UN's estimates of Iraqi deaths under the status quo before the invasion is huge! Also you are conveniently forgotting that Hussein himself started the whole thing by invading Kuwait and then failing to comply with the UN ceasefire conditions (you can go to the pre-war UN inspector reports to see that Hussein was in clear breach).

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  27. Noah: "* 150,000 - 200,000 Iraqis killed. This is a low estimate, but like many historians I tend to believe low estimates when it comes to war casualties, since there are a lot of refugees in wars, since government systems for counting people break down, and since a lot of people would have died anyway, especially given the crushing sanctions regime in place before the war. So let's make it 150-200k with an asterisk; it might have been three times that. (What's a factor of three between friends?)"

    Noah, read the articles in the Lancet for both the first and second studies done by the MIT group. They reference where their methods had been used before in wars, and IIRC, for one war (Bosnia), they could do after-war follow-up.

    Contact me for some more references.

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    1. Another reason I don't use the higher estimates is that sanctions were taking a high death toll before the war, and if there had been no war, sanctions would have continued for a very long time. I want to be fair, here.

      Delete
    2. Sorry, still wrong. the MIT group used as a baseline an estimate of deaths from just before the war, derived from the same method.

      See http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-refugee-and-disaster-response/publications_tools/iraq/sdarticle.pdf



      "Respondents were also asked to describe the composition of their household on Jan 1, 2002, and asked about any births, deaths, or visitors who stayed in the household for more than 2 months. "

      The obvious reason being to obtain a difference estimator.

      Noah, if you have not read the article, you are misinformed. That's because there have been a lot of lies, bullsh*t and dumf*ckery about it. I've seen a hacktacular blog post on Marginal Revolution by an alleged economics professor who didn't seem to understand (a) 'violent' deaths vs. 'excess' deaths, or (b) what any of the actual parties studying this were trying to do.

      Delete
  28. A suggestion for an adjustment in your calculations. Like many stories on the war, the the deaths of civilian contractors is omitted. The U.S. not only fought the war with a professional volunteer Army, but basically used a mercenary force to augment and supply it.

    "As of December (2011), 3,258 civilian contract workers had been killed or died in Iraq, and another 90,000 had reported injuries." http://www.propublica.org/article/war-contractor-fined-for-late-reports-of-30-deaths

    Not all of these were Americans, but about 2,000 were, and there is an actual cost because of Federal contracting law firms had to pay out significant workers compensation claims for both death and injury.

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  29. Anonymous2:58 PM

    Opportunity costs also exist . For example, 2/3's of the "Axis of Evil" has now built nuclear weapons. Mr. Bush et al. chose to invade in the 1/3 that didn't.

    If your are going to list "The elimination of the tiny, tiny risk that Saddam would one day develop WMDs." as a benefit, you also have to list the lost chance to stop nuclear proliferation as a cost.

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  30. Anonymous8:20 PM

    It's a pretty good cost-benefit accounting, but this has me scratching my head:

    "A revitalized American liberal movement. The blogosphere as we know it really took off in response to the Iraq War, becoming the liberal answer to conservative talk radio."

    Yeah, well, Yggie & little Ezra got to be David Broder: Next Generation, and the Dems won some elections. (By default -- Republicans are too disorganized, tainted and batshit crazy. Even so, typical Dem incompetence gave the GOP nice gains in 2010.)

    Other than that, I don't see anything worth calling "the left". Perhaps whatever remnants of the Occupy movement, but otherwise... The election of Obama -- who's generally entrenched or extended the worst Bush precedents -- seems to have deflated whatever nascent left organizing there may have been under Bush. This has been the strategic role of the Dems since around 1948. There'll never be an American left worthy of the name until leftish people finally pick up that the Dems will betray them every time. And the Dems will keep right on doing what they've always done, until leftish people exert their power to walk away.
    -- sglover

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  31. I'm sure that you have come up with a similar list of objections to the Korean War where the casualties (Korean and Western) were far higher. Yet that intervention saved many millions of people from living in an impoverished communist concentration camp for decades. Worth it? Where does one start to analyse?

    You need to factor in the huge numbers of lives the intervention saved, given the astounding rate at which Saddam murdered his own people. Huge numbers of the post-war casualties were grinning Islamist fascists killing other Muslims.

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  32. If we add the cost of Food Stamps and Disability benefits together that equals the cost of the Iraq War over the same period.

    Also, as long as we are not balancing the budget we can claim that any dollar spent by Washington is accumulating an interest that we should factor in.

    Finally, one major benefit is that the US regained credibility on the world stage. Maybe not in a short term political sense but the Iraq War was a result of Iraq failing to abide by the treaty that ended the Desert Storm (the 1st Iraq War). We demonstrated to the world that if Our treaties are ignored, the offenders will face major consequences.

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  33. If the US Federal Government had a Balanced Budget Amendment I assume the original estimates of 60,000,000,000 would have been far more accurate. I doubt W even called on his Treasury Secretary to ask if we could afford the War. The American Public should pay for the actions of their government kicking the can down the road with unfunded actions or programs (whatever they are War or Aid) is why our Country is losing power. Not some War in the Middle East. If those on the Left or Right really wanted honest and timely Cost Benefit Analysis prior to the expentiture being passed, they should be demanding a Federal Balanced Budget Amendment.

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  34. Anonymous6:36 PM

    When Hussein was running things the Saudi's needed US troops in their counrty to prevent his tanks from siezing their oil fields. In return they kept oil prices stable. After we took him out, they kicked us out and cranked up oil prices from $27 to $37 a barrel thus beginning the largest transfer of wealth (from us to the oil producers) in history.

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  35. Anonymous11:09 PM

    I can see this was a real well thought out, researched, and unbiased approach to analyzing the war. Of course you give an opinion which for all purposes you are calling yourself an extremist for the left against the war. So how can we take your analysis seriously.

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  36. Unstable peace in Iraq keeps Iraqi economy from emerging. Purchasing an income protection cover is indeed a wise thing to do. Someday soon, when violence is over, it's economy will surely emerge.

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