Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Costs of War

Recently there's been a bit of attention given to Joseph Stiglitz's estimate that the war on Iraq has so far cost $3 trillion. New Zealand blogger No Right Turn has a short post considering the opportunity cost of that amount.

It's not necessarily a point to be made only in hindsight. I thought it was worth posting the text of a letter I wrote to the New Zealand Listener back in the early days of the war in 2003 (even before blogging), when it was possible to imagine a greatly more optimistic combination of cost and outcome:

In the leadup to the war on Iraq, while bad cops Bush and Rumsfeld itchily fingered their holsters, the good cops (Powell and Blair) tried to talk the rest of us round with dire warnings about the ‘clear and present danger’ posed by Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The principal rationale for the unprecedented doctrine of the pre-emptive strike was based on vague but scary scenarios of such weapons exploding in the streets of Tel Aviv, New York or London.

Now, after the crushing military victory within 21 days, coverage alternates between chest-beating triumphalism and worries about how to address the chaos that has been engendered in Iraq. While the Americans have anounced they will unilaterally continue ‘weapons inspections’, this is presented as a mere afterthought. Who now remembers that the war was supposed to be about some kind of perverse form of self-defense?

Clearly, however, if Saddam did possess weapons of mass destruction, he did not have the capacity to deploy them in any meaningful way. In some of the debate around the war, it has been suggested that Saddam refrained from using chemical weapons against the advancing Coalition forces because that would have proved they were justified in invading in the first place. But if this crazed and brutal dictator cared enough about losing the moral high ground to refrain from using his WMD in last ditch defense, with nothing to lose, what makes us believe he would ever have used them aggressively, or even (probably traceably) supplied them to someone else?

Maybe this is churlish semantics, since Iraq has been liberated once and for all of a thuggish despot. Maybe that outweighs the possibly thousands of civilians killed or maimed, the unknown number of Iraqi conscript soldiers slaughtered, the irreparable damage to international law, the chaos, anarchy and looting. Quite plausibly, Iraq will be better off in the long term. And perhaps this was the real motivation all along. Bush, Blair and co. wanted to rid the world of a terrible scourge and better the lot of humanity. They just had to conjure up alternative, more self-interested arguments because they didn’t think everybody else would have the moral courage to accompany them in their venture.

But hang on a minute. If purging scourges of humanity and aiding oppressed peoples was their aim, shouldn’t they, in the spirit of good accountable government, have first conducted some decent cost-effectiveness studies? What would the $75-200 billion spent on the war on Iraq have achieved if used, say, to help address the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa?

No comments: