Considering Iraq: Another View

Peter Robinson asks provocatively whether, if we knew then what we know now about Iraq,  the United States should have invaded. Others on Ricochet and in the commentariat have gone through the benefits and costs of the war, and I won’t rehearse them here.

It is always important, I think, to place yourself in the position of the decision-makers at the time, and to review the decision under the conditions and with the information that they had.  Otherwise, you will fall subject to hindsight bias, otherwise known as Monday-morning quarterbacking. I continue to think that invading Iraq was the best option in light of the information we had then — I am finishing a book on war in the 21st century, where I make the case for preemptive and preventive war, and I argue that the proper way to think about these questions is based on the information available before the decision, not after.

But one way to think of Peter’s question is to think of it as a legal question. In law, we often come upon a situation after an event — a crime, an accident, etc. — and we must decide what to do based on the knowledge we have now. Courts award damages based on the harm to the victim and the harm to society. Suppose you thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. If so, isn’t the proper remedy to restore Saddam Hussein’s family and the Baath Party to power in Iraq? If you are unwilling to consider that remedy, aren’t you conceding that on balance, the benefits of the war outweigh the costs?

Even though the benefits outweighed the costs, that does not mean we simply leave Iraq once we depose the Husseins. The legal system in such situations might still require a benefiting party to compensate a harmed party. In other words, we allow one harm to occur in society because there is a greater good achieved — but then the legal system can intervene afterward to require sharing of the benefits between the plaintiff and defendant.

And isn’t that what we did in Iraq? We spent billions of dollars in Iraq as damages. We did so not because the war was wrong, but because it was right — and we shared the benefits of the war with the Iraqi people by transferring some of it in the form of reconstruction funds.

  1. Steve Duke

    If you look at the Iraq war through the lens of accounting, and think of it as a project then you can think that the costs were too high and still support restoring Sadam et fils.  Despite valid initial projections and despite still having positive residual value, the project ended up costing more than the benefits.  You don’t scrap the project, you simply write off the sunk costs, move forward and enjoy the benefits. 

    Looking forward to your book John.

    BTW, my two cents: the biggest cost of the Iraq war is the US’s credibility.   Gulf War I, Iraq 2003-2013, Afghanistan, (Vietnam) you guys don’t finish what you start. 

  2. Devereaux

    I, for one, never thought there was a point to the invasion and subsequent “peace building” in Iraq beside our trying to establish a democracy-type social structure in the midst of the scimitar. I felt then that it was worth a try.

    By-and-large it has failed to do what was expected. Iraq may not be ruled by the tyrant Hussein, but it is still ruled by the tyrant Islaam. We have substituted one enemy for another while failing to create a secular government with real religious freedom.

    But, as noted above, a good part of that has been our overall view of foreign policy. It does not appears to be generally to promote trade, increase our coffers by effort of wealth creation, but policing bad boys around the globe.

    I do not think I support Rand Paul’s stance on foreign policy. But it DOES provide a great vehicle for discussing just what our policy ought to be, and how to apply it. We seem to have little cohesive thought there – just random positions in reaction to this or that. 

  3. Devereaux
    Steve Duke: If you look at the Iraq war through the lens of accounting, and think of it as a project then you can think that the costs were too high and still support restoring Sadam et fils.  Despite valid initial projections and despite still having positive residual value, the project ended up costing more than the benefits.  You don’t scrap the project, you simply write off the sunk costs, move forward and enjoy the benefits. 

    Looking forward to your book John.

    BTW, my two cents: the biggest cost of the Iraq war is the US’s credibility.   Gulf War I, Iraq 2003-2013, Afghanistan, (Vietnam) you guys don’t finish what you start.  · 1 minute ago

    Well, we finished Vietnam, but then the democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Read Black April to see the degree and method that happened.

  4. Scott R
    Conor Friedersdorf

    To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party.

    …which is why he didn’t imply it.

    Still, I agree that an unwillingness to restore Baathists to power does not necessarily imply that “the benefits outweighed the costs”, but only that “there were, in fact, benefits”, the elimination of the Baathists being the main one.

  5. Mark

    I agree.  That’s why Yoo is wrong when he tries to apply a legal framework to this.

    Scott Reusser

    Conor Friedersdorf

     

    To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party.

    …which is why he didn’t imply it.

    Still, I agree that an unwillingness to restore Baathists to power does not necessarily imply that “the benefits outweighed the costs”, but only that “there were, in fact, benefits”, the elimination of the Baathists being the main one. · 18 minutes ago

  6. Albert Arthur

    I’m confused. Mr. Yoo ordinarily argues against applying legal theory to military actions.

  7. Simon Templar
    Devereaux

    Steve Duke: If you look at the Iraq war through the lens of accounting, and think of it as a project then you can think that the costs were too high and still support restoring Sadam et fils.  Despite valid initial projections and despite still having positive residual value, the project ended up costing more than the benefits.  You don’t scrap the project, you simply write off the sunk costs, move forward and enjoy the benefits. 

    Looking forward to your book John.

    BTW, my two cents: the biggest cost of the Iraq war is the US’s credibility.   Gulf War I, Iraq 2003-2013, Afghanistan, (Vietnam) you guys don’t finish what you start.  · 1 minute ago

    Well, we finished Vietnam, but then the democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Read Black April to see the degree and method that happened. · 1 hour ago

    and Obama threw away the victory in Iraq; but you’re right to say that the US not Obama takes the loss.

  8. Simon Templar
    John Yoo: Even though the benefits outweighed the costs, that does not mean we simply leave Iraq once we depose the Husseins.And isn’t that what we did in Iraq? We spent billions of dollars in Iraq as damages.

    Do you know what the strategy was in Iraq?  From my reading of your article, it was nothing more than a tactical mission to depose the Husseins.  If that was the case, I would have recommended option B, C, and/or D if I’d had the ear of anyone in the ruling class. 

    I smelled a rat when we just stopped fighting to end the 1st battle for Fallujah.  No victory, no defeat, not even a tie - just called time out, and then had do it again 7 months later.  Oorah!

  9. Duane Oyen

    All of the premises implied by the comments here are, in my view, dead wrong.  None is as worthy of toten mortality as the mindset that Conor so often retails.

    Since 1953, the US 2nd Infantry Division has been deployed in Korea.  It has served as a local and omnipresent “tripwire” to deter the ambitions of not only Pyongyang but of all of the others in that neighborhood who need a reminder that the adults will stand in the way of excess.

    Iraq is in the most strategic location of the Middle East.  Bounded by Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, with a prospering Kurdish state, ready access to the Gulf, it is the perfect place to base the SW Asia equivalent of the ROK military deployment. 

    To succeed in the larger goal- which is neither turning Iraq into Missouri nor Iran, but in having a ready force as tripwire and cop in the world’s most volatile region- all we needed to do after 5 years was complete a sensible status-of-forces agreement.  We were denied that by Obama, and by irresponsible isolationists, both Republican and Democrat.

    I may be an evil neocon, but that is truth.

  10. Conor Friedersdorf
    C
    John Yoo: Suppose you thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. If so, isn’t the proper remedy to restore Saddam Hussein’s family and the Baath Party to power in Iraq? If you are unwilling to consider that remedy, aren’t you conceding that on balance, the benefits of the war outweigh the costs?

    To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party. Perhaps there is some opponent of the war somewhere who reasons from that premise. I have never encountered one. The vast majority of war opponents think that the wronged parties are American soldiers who died in combat, innocent Iraqis killed as a result of the war, and American taxpayers, who paid much more than they anticipated for a strategically dubious intervention.

    Was that unclear to you?

  11. Frank Soto

     I do love what it says about America, that we took such great pains to spare the Iraqis  both casualties and infrastructure.   I love that we desire to see them rebuilt and existing in peace with us as free people.

    But I have to take us to task for this mindset in the context of war.

    In ages past, the loser paid war indemnities to the winner as compensation.  What you suggest above is that the winner should be the one to pay.  This calls in to question what the value of winning is under such a system.

    If the goal was to mimic our  post WWII nation building success, then as I said earlier, we skipped the crucial step of defeating the enemy.  Civilian casualties and property damage are terrible, but also a major factor in convincing a nation to yield.

     If foreign terrorists know that they can wage war on the United States, with no fear of their loved ones or homes suffering the consequences, and in fact, only the risk of the US rebuilding their nation stronger than before, where is the disincentive to fight us?  They have already demonstrated no fear for their own lives.

  12. Big Green
    To succeed in the larger goal- which is neither turning Iraq into Missouri nor Iran, but in having a ready force as tripwire and cop in the world’s most volatile region- all we needed to do after 5 years was complete a sensible status-of-forces agreement.  We were denied that by Obama, and by irresponsible isolationists, both Republican and Democrat.

    I may be an evil neocon, but that is truth. · 1 hour ago

    It seems to me that there is an element missing from this analysis.  Which is does the permanent presence you propose result in a higher probability of hostilities against the US elsewhere in the world.  This is most certainly a “cost” of the your plan and that cost is not meaningless.

  13. Simon Templar

    Duane:

    1.  I agree with you that Iraq could and should have been huge.  See my #9.

    2.  My question in #10:  Do you know what the strategy was in Iraq?

    I asked because Mr. Yoo never got near addressing the “big blue arrow” strategy behind the invasion.  He must believe that it was more than just taking Hussein out, so why not tell us what the White House strategy was?  Asking the question does not mean that I felt the decision to invade was wrong.  Maybe everything after, but not the decision itself.

    3.  The part about Fallujah was venting, but it also was when I first felt the politicians micromanaging the trigger pullers.  The bad guys asked for a cease fire in Fallujah because we were kicking their [expletive deleted], especially our snipers were decimating their leadership.  There never should have been a second Battle for Fallujah.

  14. Devereaux

    I guess I have to ask, ?just why should we have had ANY plans for “occupation”. It’s one thing to take out a nasty, another to have to “run” a country. It’s their country – let them figure it out. We aren’t an empire, nor should we want to be one.

  15. Simon Templar
    Duane Oyen

    Simon Templar:

    3.  The part about Fallujah was venting, but it also was when I first felt the politicians micromanaging the trigger pullers.  The bad guys asked for a cease fire in Fallujah because we were kicking their [expletive deleted], especially our snipers were decimating their leadership.  There never should have been a second Battle for Fallujah.

    War is one mistake after another- the key is that you do not surrender without losing first.  Regarding “micromanaging the triggerpullers”, are you referring to the rules of engagement that, properly, I believe, scrupulously avoided “more rubble, less trouble” syndrome?

    By micromanaging trigger pullers I mean the order that came down from the White House to stop fighting for Fallujah.  A clearly political decision made by President Bush due to concerns for “civilian” and US casualties.  We were a few days, less than a week, from ending al-Zarqawi’s house of torture operation after he ambushed, killed, burned, and hung the bodies of 4 Blackwater contractors.    

    Wasn’t referring to ROEs, but current one in Afghanistan is proof positive that Obama finds American (military) lives expendable.

    I refer you to Bonaparte, “If you start to take Vienna – take Vienna.”

  16. Cornelius Julius Sebastian
    Simon Templar

    Cornelius Julius Sebastian: I had to go to that rodeo very near the front end of it.  Stayed a year and saw a good chunk of it from Safwan all the way to Mosul.  I never thought twice about going.  Post 9/11, knowing what we did and weighing what we thought we knew, taking Hussein out was the right call.  The only thing that was mind-bogglingly inexcusable was there being no plan for the follow on occupation, pacification and reconstruction.  Good plan to win the big fight up front, but quite honestly, that was a forgone conclusion.  Shinseki was right about what should have happened post-regime change and they hounded him out. Very poor judgment. That’s the only real beef I had with Rumsfeld and Franks.    · 1 hour ago

    Welcome home. · 9 hours ago

    Thanks, been home from OIF since 2004, and OEF since 2011.  Sounds like you’ve played in the sandbox too.  Welcome home to you as well! 

  17. Duane Oyen
    Simon Templar: Duane:

    1.  I agree with you that Iraq could and should have been huge.  See my #9.

    2.  My question in #10:  Do you know what the strategy was in Iraq?

    I asked because Mr. Yoo never got near addressing the “big blue arrow” strategy behind the invasion.  He must believe that it was more than just taking Hussein out, so why not tell us what the White House strategy was?  Asking the question does not mean that I felt the decision to invade was wrong.  Maybe everything after, but not the decision itself.

    3.  The part about Fallujah was venting, but it also was when I first felt the politicians micromanaging the trigger pullers.  The bad guys asked for a cease fire in Fallujah because we were kicking their [expletive deleted], especially our snipers were decimating their leadership.  There never should have been a second Battle for Fallujah. · 7 hours ago

    War is one mistake after another- the key is that you do not surrender without losing first.  Regarding “micromanaging the triggerpullers”, are you referring to the rules of engagement that, properly, I believe, scrupulously avoided “more rubble, less trouble” syndrome?

    I refer you to Toqueville.

  18. Cornelius Julius Sebastian
    I had to go to that rodeo very near the front end of it.  Stayed a year and saw a good chunk of it from Safwan all the way to Mosul.  I never thought twice about going.  Post 9/11, knowing what we did and weighing what we thought we knew, taking Hussein out was the right call.  The only thing that was mind-bogglingly inexcusable was there being no plan for the follow on occupation, pacification and reconstruction.  Good plan to win the big fight up front, but quite honestly, that was a forgone conclusion.  Shinseki was right about what should have happened post-regime change and they hounded him out. Very poor judgment. That’s the only real beef I had with Rumsfeld and Franks.   
  19. Neolibertarian

    In 2007, a ridiculous US intelligence report, issued by a recent Bush appointee, announces to the world that Iran had abandoned its militarized nuclear weapons program back in 2003. A shocked IAEA called it mistaken and blatantly false.

    Al Sadr begins to be abandoned by his Iranian sponsors.

    2008, a multitiered “hearts and minds program” launched much earlier by US military commanders, sometimes called the “Sunni Awakening,” begins to take hold in Iraq. Terrorist bombings and guerilla attacks fell precipitously, and then dwindled to nothing.

    Conservatives and Republicans hail “the Surge” a resounding success.

    For all intents and purposes, the occupation of Iraq is a success.

    Americans knew that operation as “Iraqi Freedom.”

    But when the Iranians heard that name, they always heard “Iraqi Shi’ite Freedom.”

    Shi’a is one of the longest oppressed religious sects in history. They thought they’d finally won “freedom” under the Khomeini revolution.

    But we all know the Islamic Republic’s  ”democracy” to be the thinnest of shams. The Iranians know this far, far better than anyone else. Hardly freed by Khomeini, they were more oppressed than ever.

    Then Iraq was stabilized. It possessed an actual democracy.

    In 2009, the Green Revolution began.

  20. Simon Templar
    Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    Simon Templar

    Cornelius Julius Sebastian: I had to go to that rodeo very near the front end of it.  Stayed a year and saw a good chunk of it from Safwan all the way to Mosul.  I never thought twice about going.  Post 9/11, knowing what we did and weighing what we thought we knew, taking Hussein out was the right call.  The only thing that was mind-bogglingly inexcusable was there being no plan for the follow on occupation, pacification and reconstruction.  Good plan to win the big fight up front, but quite honestly, that was a forgone conclusion.  Shinseki was right about what should have happened post-regime change and they hounded him out. Very poor judgment. That’s the only real beef I had with Rumsfeld and Franks.    ·

    Welcome home. · 

    Thanks, been home from OIF since 2004, and OEF since 2011.  Sounds like you’ve played in the sandbox too.  Welcome home to you as well!  ·

    Thank you.  Yes USMC infantry officer/mustang, did some pre-OEF stuff on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border and later OIF.  Did OEF with Blackwater.  Much more than that you’ll have to buy many beers.