Tag: Saddam Hussein

Was the Iraq War Worth It?

That’s the question posed by US News and World Report’s “Debate Club” today.

Here’s the opening to my response.

Tragically, the Iraq War was not worth the costs. The leading advocates for war understated the costs and exaggerated the benefits. They claimed that the war would be cheap, perhaps even profitable, thanks to lower oil prices. They suggested that it would be easy, a “cakewalk,” not requiring a long-term U.S presence to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. They blithely dismissed concerns about the tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shiites.

We now know how wrong they were. A new report from the Watson Institute for International Studies at BrownUniversity tallies up the costs: nearly 4,500 U.S. troop fatalities, more than $1.7 trillion spent, and another $490 billion owed. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the sectarian bloodletting that occurred after the collapse of Saddam’s regime exceed 130,000. Millions were displaced, many still have not returned to their homes. The Iraqi Christian community has been decimated.

You can read the rest here and vote for the best argument.

The GOP’s Big Government Baggage

Brian Myrick / AP file

The Republican National Convention is just days away, so it’s relevant to point out that the longer big-government interventionists are associated with the GOP, the more terms like “limited government” and “free markets” will lose all meaning. One Republican who epitomizes the damage of this guilt by association is former Vice President Dick Cheney. He won’t be at the convention, but his message surely will be.Below are two arguments put forward by Cheney, the first about Iraq in 2002, the second about Iran in 2007:

Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

And on Iran:

There is no reason in the world why Iran needs to continue to pursue nuclear weapons. But if you look down the road a few years and speculate about the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world, that’s a very serious prospect. And it’s important that not happen.

What is so remarkable about this vision proffered by Cheney is how it fails to elucidate precisely how either country threatens America’s interests or economic well-being. If one were to challenge the validity of Cheney’s claims, questions would include:

  • What is the likelihood of such a hypothetical disruption?
  • What is the harm if America’s access to markets is closed, and for how long?
  • How would the perpetrators of the closure be affected?
  • How has America dealt with such disruptions in the past?
  • Would there be available alternatives?
  • And, most importantly, would the risks to America’s interests and economic well-being be worse if it took preventive action?

Cheney evokes the imagery of America spreading stability and peace, while his world view relies on aggressive militarism that destroys both. What is particularly appalling is his implication that the United States must protect “the world’s energy supplies” and “the world’s supply of oil.” Chris Preble has drawn on a rich body of literature that shows why such claims do not withstand scrutiny.

Remarkably, Cheney represents a Republican constituency supportive of free markets, and yet his world view contradicts basic free trade and free market principles. He believes that free markets thrive only when peace and stability are provided by the U.S. government—and there’s the rub.

Rather than a world of economic exchange free of the state and its interventions, government must enforce global order for free trade to occur. Cheney’s vision of free markets impels American expansion.

At its heart—and far from free market—the former vice president’s world view fulfills a radical interpretation of U.S. foreign policy. Cheney gives new life to the works of revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams, by propagating the pernicious notion that U.S. intervention abroad is required to control the flow of raw materials and protect America’s wealth and power.

Did We Miss Out on the Bargain of the Century in Iraq?

Stuart Reid’s Twitter points to this Condi Rice discussion with Katie Couric in which the following exchange takes place over the decision to invade Iraq:

RICE: …I’m also, frankly, just very glad [Saddam Hussein is] out of power. Now, to be frank, we tried to take him out of power without going to war. We tried to take him out of power by – we got a report from an Arab state that shall remain nameless that he would take a billion dollars to lead – to leave. We said, deal. Right? (Laughter.) We tried to (find ?) him –

COURIC: Has that – has that been made public before?

RICE: Yeah, I – it may be in President Bush’s book. I’m not sure. I don’t remember. But we did. We said, if he’ll go, everybody’s happy.

A colleague intrepidly Googled this, and turned up this 2007 article in the Washington Post.  The article reports that for a billion dollars and if allowed to “keep information on weapons of mass destruction,” Saddam Hussein told Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak that he would have been willing to go into exile.  President Bush’s own book, per Secretary Rice’s mention, covers the matter in this way:

…Our last ditch hope was that Saddam would agree to go into exile.  At one point, an offer from a Middle Eastern government to send Saddam to Belarus with $1 to $2 billion looked like it might gain traction.  Instead, in one of his last acts, Saddam ordered the tongue of a dissident slashed out and left the man to bleed to death.  The dictator of Iraq had made his decision.  He chose war.

Lots of people like to make fun of President Bush’s prose style, but even for him (or his ghostwriter) this is pretty peculiar.  First of all, it isn’t clear why “person who cuts off dissidents’ tongues and leaves them to bleed to death” is mutually exclusive with “person willing to take a billion or two dollars and go into exile.”  Saying Saddam cut a dissident’s tongue out doesn’t necessarily bear on his willingness to take a payout and go into exile.

Second, it’s almost certain that this was pursued and didn’t go anywhere, but if there was anything approaching a realistic opportunity to make this happen, we really missed out on the bargain of the century here.  You’re looking at something like 500%-1000% returns, not counting several thousand American and a-hundred-or-so-thousand Iraqi lives saved.

Thirdly: Belarus?

Iraq’s Refugee Crisis

George W. Bush’s misguided attack on Iraq has had catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people.  Although the removal of Saddam Hussein was a blessing, the bloody chaos that resulted was not.  Estimates of the number of dead in the ensuing strife starts at about 100,000 and rises rapidly.  The number of injured is far greater.

Moreover, roughly four million people, about one-sixth of the population, have been driven from their homes.  The most vulnerable tended to be Iraq’s Christian community and Iraqis who aided U.S. personnel – acting as translators, for instance.  Yet the Bush administration resisted allowing any of these desperate people to come to America, since to resettle refugees would be to acknowledge that administration policy had failed to result in the promised paradise in Babylon.

This horrid neglect continues.  Reports Hanna Ingber Win:

Of the millions displaced, the United States will resettle about 17,000 new Iraqis this coming fiscal year. While that is a relatively small number of arrivals compared to the number displaced, about a third of them will end up in El Cajon and Greater San Diego. More than 5,000 new Iraqis will arrive in San Diego County during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, according to Catholic Charities in the San Diego Diocese. Getting jobs, homes and visas to reunite the families of the new arrivals — many of whom put their lives and their families’ lives at risk by helping the U.S. military — is a monumental task.

As the Iraq War played out, the Bush administration seemed to do everything in its power to ignore the refugee crisis. Former President Bush, reluctant to admit to a failed war policy, never mentioned the plight of the refugees and for years refused to allow Iraqis fleeing the war zone to resettle in the U.S. Only after significant political pressure from members of Congress and advocacy groups did the administration’s policy begin to change, and refugees began gaining access to the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. He vowed to increase the amount of aid given to countries like Syria and Jordan, which harbor most of the displaced people, as well as expedite the process of resettling refugees here.

“The Bush administration made every effort they could to try to minimize the issue [of Iraqi refugees] in the debate on the war,” Amelia Templeton, a refugee-policy analyst with Human Rights First, says not long after the presidential election. The Obama administration, on the other hand, she says, has made the issue an explicit policy priority. “Obama has said this is a major problem, that we are responsible for this problem and we will try to change this.”

Whether the Obama administration will live up to its rhetoric is still to be seen.

Immigration is an emotional issue at any time.  But there is no excuse for not accepting more persecuted peoples who are fleeing violence sparked by U.S. military action and attacks sparked by their aid for U.S. military forces.  If America refuses to act as a haven for these people, then yet another light will have gone out in what was once a shining city on a hill for the world.

Haass: Defining ‘Success’ Down

Richard Haass’s op ed in today’s Post is worth a read. Sure, it amounts to a well-placed advertisement for his new book, War of Necessity, War of Choice. And it’s not like Haass, current president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and former director of policy planning at the State Department, lacks for exposure. But while I would quibble with his characterization of the first Gulf War as “necessary”, it is refreshing for a man so firmly fixed in the foreign policy establishment to focus not on the United States’ supposed capacity for refashioning the global order, but rather on the limits of our power.

He urges President Obama to resist the impulse to expand our objectives in Afghanistan, and should not dedicate far more resources to the effort if we appear to be falling short of a few modest goals. He wisely counsels that the United States is unlikely to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment or North Korea to give up its weapons, and we should therefore focus on the more essential and achievable tasks of intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and pressure on North Korea (in concert with China) to prevent material and technology from being diverted to others.

He concludes:

Some will argue that defining success down is defeatist. And certainly, one can imagine an Afghanistan or an Iraq that becomes a Jeffersonian democracy and an Iran or a North Korea that gets out of the nuclear business. But such outcomes are improbable at best and more likely fantasy. Moreover, far greater involvement and investment would still fail to bring them about.

The alternatives are outcomes that are good enough and commensurate with interests and costs. The moment calls for defining success down. The United States is stretched economically and militarily. Better partial success we can afford than expensive failures we cannot.

Les Gelb, CFR’s former president, makes similar arguments in his latest book, Power Rules.

Few people in Washington rise through the ranks by talking about what we can’t or shouldn’t do, which partly explains why the voices of restraint are almost always drowned out by the vocal few calling for action. (For more on this point, see Steve Walt’s recent commentary at FP.com and Justin Logan’s observations on this blog.)

At the end of the day, therefore, I’m not convinced that Haass or Gelb, or anyone else, can consistently prevail with their judicious counsel to not act. Haass was on the inside when the second Bush administration was spoiling for a fight with Saddam Hussein, and neither he nor Colin Powell was able to stop that disastrous war. (Haass told NPR’s Robert Siegel yesterday that he was only 60 percent opposed to the war, so it is not even clear that he tried that hard to stop it.)

As I explain in my book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free, because even sensible people who are strongly opposed to foreign military intervention will often lose the intellectual battles within the executive branch, we should return to the Founders’ prescription that the war powers be controlled by the people, through the Congress, not the president. We also need to understand before we go to war how a particular military mission advances U.S. national security, and that our men and women in uniform have been given a clear and achievable objective.

If we were to get away from the dangerous and counterproductive notion that the United States is – and should forever be – the world’s policeman, we could maintain a much smaller military. It would be designed to defend vital U.S. interests, not to fight other people’s wars, and build other people’s countries. And this smaller, focused military would constrain the president’s propensity to do something, and make it easier for him to turn aside the interminable requests for U.S. assistance.

All states, even enormously powerful ones, need to make choices. Haass makes this point eloquently, and I welcome his important contribution to the debate.

A Far Cry from ‘Axis of Evil’

Hoping to derail the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Obama today gave an unprecedented appeal to the Iranian people in a special video message. In it, he offers a “new beginning” of engagement to end the nearly 30 years of hostile bilateral relations. 

This video comes less than a month after the administration wrote a letter to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, truly controls the apparatus of government and has the final say on the country’s nuclear ambitions. Khamene’i sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after he won the presidency. 

My colleague, Justin Logan, has written extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran, such as here and here, to name a few. He argues — and I agree — that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails.

In response to those (usually neoconservatives) who fear Israel will be wiped off the map, Logan argues persuasively that attempting to deduce Iranian intentions from public statements is not helpful in ascertaining whether the clerical regime values self-preservation. Instead, we must evaluate what the regime has done when confronted with overwhelming force. For example, rather than wage the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to the bitter end, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, one of Iran’s most radical Ayatollahs, saved his country from more suffering by accepting a disadvantageous ceasefire with Saddam Hussein.

Overall, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance their interests in the region. As I’ve written here, occasionally the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Thus, it would be prudent for Washington to engage Tehran and allow it to produce uranium and plutonium if the regime agrees to IAEA safeguard regulations in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

National self-preservation has figured prominently in modern Iranian diplomacy. President Obama and his subordinates appear to understand that. Hopefully, this new strategy will work.