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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.