Thursday, June 23, 2005

Was the Iraq War worth it?

Before the final installment of the Folkways series, here's a take on the Iraq war from the standpoint of US global strategy.

The argument was made before the war that the critical difference between Iraq and al Qaeda is that since Iraq has material assets, it is deterrable while al Qaeda is not. Thus, the argument goes, we ought to focus on destroying al Qaeda and containing Iraq.

Robert Kagan, author of Of Paradise and Power recently wrote in the Washington Post that judging if the war was worth it requires seeing through the PR for and against it leading up to the invasion:

The most sensible argument for the invasion was not that Hussein was about to strike the United States or anyone else with a nuclear bomb. It was that containment could not be preserved indefinitely, that Hussein was repeatedly defying the international community and that his defiance appeared to both the Clinton and Bush administrations to be gradually succeeding. He was driving a wedge between the United States and Britain, on one side, which wanted to maintain sanctions and containment, and France, Russia, and China, on the other, which wanted to drop sanctions and normalize relations with him.

If it's true that containment was untenable because of the inevitable breakdown of the coalition against Iraq, then there's essentially a choice between invading now or later, since there was no question Hussein was a threat to regional stability if left unchecked. What's more, it could be argued that invading Iraq makes the debate between the US/UK and France/Russia/China blocks moot, allowing them to eventually smooth over relations to work in other issues. Yet that certainly was not the explicit strategy.

But what was needed was not indefinite containment, but simply adequate containment. Could Iraq have been deterred long enough for either Hussein to die (or, less likely, be overthrown) or to be defanged by a method other than invasion? One's judgment of the effectiveness of the UN and the resolve of the US over time probably drives one's views on this. But it's clear that the US underestimated the cost of the war in blood and treasure, and may well have overestimated the cost of peace.

Hat tip to Centerfield/Centrist Coalition.


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