Hard to See the Benefits Through the Bills and the Blood

Last week marked five years since President Bush’s decision to engage in preemptive war against Iraq (or more accurately, preventive war, since there was no imminent threat to thwart; rather its purpose was to prevent a potential threat that had not yet emerged from materializing – even though there was no concrete evidence that such a threat would, in fact, materialize). Speaking at the Pentagon, the president declared that the Iraq war was worth fighting: “Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision.” The implication is that the benefit warrants the cost.

So what was the benefit of removing Saddam Hussein from power? Five years ago – speaking to an audience from the American Enterprise Institute – President Bush argued:

“In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world – and we will not allow it. This same tyrant has close ties to terrorist organizations, and could supply them with the terrible means to strike this country – and America will not permit it. The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away. The danger must be confronted.”

Moreover, he intoned that “the safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat.”

But five years later, the president was unable to demonstrate that the Iraq War was worth fighting by the criteria he used to justify the decision to go to war. Instead, he made this case:

“What our troops found in Iraq following Saddam’s removal was horrifying. They uncovered children’s prisons, and torture chambers, and rape rooms where Iraqi women were violated in front of their families. They found videos showing regime thugs mutilating Iraqis deemed disloyal to Saddam. And across the Iraqi countryside they uncovered mass graves of thousands executed by the regime.

“Because we acted, Saddam Hussein no longer fills fields with the remains of innocent men, women and children. Because we acted, Saddam’s torture chambers and rape rooms and children’s prisons have been closed for good. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer invading its neighbors or attacking them with chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer paying the families of suicide bombers in the Holy Land. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer shooting at American and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones and defying the will of the United Nations.”

In used-car-sales terms this is known as bait and switch. And the reality is that Saddam Hussein was never a direct threat – military or terrorist – to the United States. So although one less dictator in the world may be a good thing in a general sense, in terms of U.S. national security (the only raison d’être for the use of military force) there was no demonstrable benefit for invading Iraq to depose Hussein.

On the other hand, the costs have been real and considerable. The direct cost of waging the war and subsequent military occupation is $500 billion and counting. (John McCain has said he has no problem with us being in Iraq for another 100 years. You do the math.) The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated the total cost of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion, with Iraq accounting for three-fourths of the costs. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz from Columbia University and Linda J. Bilmes from Harvard estimate the total economic cost will end up being $3 trillion in their new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War (social costs could push the bill to as much as $5 trillion). Whether it’s $1 trillion or $3 trillion, it’s a far cry from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s belief that the Iraq adventure would cost something less than $50 billion and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz’s fantasy that Iraqi oil revenues of $50-$100 billion would pay for the occupation and reconstruction costs.

But costs are not just dollars and cents. This week, the cost in American lives reached 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. And the cost in Iraqi lives will likely never be fully known. IraqBodyCount.net has documented nearly 90,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. A June 2005 Iraqi Health Ministry survey estimated 151,000 violence-related Iraqi deaths out of 400,000 excess deaths due to the war. The British Lancet study estimated nearly 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths through June 2006 related to the war. And in September 2007, a poll by Opinion Research Business (an independent polling agency in London) estimated that over 1 million Iraqis died as a result of the conflict.

Beyond casualties, the war has taken its toll on the U.S. military. Extended deployments, the use of stop-loss orders to keep soldiers from leaving the military after fulfilling their obligation, and activating more National Guard and Reservists than were cumulatively mobilized since the Cuban Missile Crisis (including for the Vietnam War, the Cuban refugee crisis, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Desert Storm) has stretched the military – in particular the Army and Marine Corps – thin. The result is that even Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted at a congressional hearing that “people are tired.” According to the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, “Our soldiers are deploying too frequently. We can’t sustain that. … We just can’t keep going at the rate that we’re going.” Casey’s civilian counterpart, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, has put it this way: “We are consuming readiness as fast as we build it.”

And what about oil? Although never a stated reason for going to war, getting rid of Hussein would result in what amounts to U.S. control of (or at least unimpeded access to) Iraqi oil, which ought to yield some benefit. A year before the invasion, the price of oil was less than $21 per barrel. Today the price of oil is over $100 per barrel, and the resulting soaring costs of gasoline and other petroleum products could possibly be the final straw that breaks the economy’s back.

Finally, there is the cost that the Bush administration refuses to recognize: that Iraq is creating more terrorists. When the president talks about “defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq” he fails to mention that al-Qaeda in Iraq did not exist under Saddam Hussein’s rule. And while al-Qaeda in Iraq’s indiscriminate violence has not won them many fans in Iraq (polls show that Iraqis – both Shi’ites and Sunnis – have no great love for Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda), the U.S. military occupation is a lightning rod for jihadists and confirmation for many Muslims of bin Laden’s claim that the United States is attacking Islam itself (according to a 2007 poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 8 out of 10 Muslims in the countries surveyed believe that the United States seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world”). And for all the happy talk by President Bush about “helping the people of Iraq establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” Muslims plainly see continued U.S. support for autocratic and repressive regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt – again confirmation of bin Laden’s accusations about the hypocrisy of U.S. policy and an easy sell to recruit to the ranks of extremism and terrorism.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.